Debating Energy Literacy

October 9, 2013

Note: In Communicating about Energy in the Triangle project meetings this fall, we have been debating the value of energy literacy education in schools as we continue to explore the social science literature on energy knowledge and behavior. Here are excerpts from two of our team members.

From graduate student Kristina Ronneberg:

One would think that the question, “Should energy literacy be taught in schools?” would be answered with an emphatic “Yes.” However, answering this question is neither obvious nor easy because it hinges on a number of preceding questions including: “What does energy literacy encompass?” “What does energy literacy seek to achieve?” “Does energy literacy result in behavior change?” and “What resources are necessary to achieve sufficient energy literacy?”

The writings of DeWaters et al., Southwell et al., Newell and Siikamaki, and Abrahamse et al. depict an America where energy literacy is low, and where motivation to meaningfully participate in energy saving activities is even lower. This is a problem in an era of global population growth, declining natural resources (including traditional fuel sources), and unprecedented levels of pollution and GHG emissions. Especially when, against this backdrop, the United States needs a population able to innovate new energy technologies and systems, able to read their utility bills, motivated to reduce their energy use, and that is generally informed and empowered. An immediate challenge is that these intents require very different types of education. The first (a workforce able to innovate energy technologies of the future) requires advanced education that includes engineering, basic sciences, and entrepreneurship. The second (a public able to read their utility bills) requires a less advanced and more practical education. The third (a public motivated to reduce their energy use) relies on social norms that would be learned through a school’s ethos and values more than through any particular coursework. Could an energy curriculum that is appropriate for everyone even be created?

The question of whether energy literacy should be taught in schools is further complicated by the limitations of the American school system. While the DeWaters and Powers and Southwell et al. papers focus on energy illiteracy, their work doesn’t even consider the underlying, and greater, challenge of general illiteracy in areas of reading, math, finance, etc. For instance, how can we expect survey respondents to correctly calculate the dollar amount that their household will save if they reduce their energy usage, when many Americans have difficulties with basic math? Similarly, how would students know that it’s impossible for a machine to produce more energy than it uses if they haven’t taken physics and aren’t familiar with the basic laws of thermodynamics. These points draw attention to the question of “What resources are necessary to achieve sufficient energy literacy?” and the reality that much of America’s education system is overextended and challenged to fulfill many of their primary objectives; teaching reading, writing, and math. It is thus unrealistic to advocate for the creation of new middle school and high school courses (ones that would focus on energy entirely). Instead it would be more practical for energy to be incorporated into student learning in two ways: 1) Integration of energy into existing subjects like physics, chemistry, math economics, civics, etc. through project-based learning, and 2) Inclusion of energy into home economics, where students would be taught to read their utility bills and understand the cost and usage rate of energy in their daily lives.

Encouragingly, one of the major trends in domestic education reform is to increase the use of project-based learning. This is an instance where energy can be integrated into middle school and high school coursework immediately, which ideally would result in greater energy literacy and increased student interest and success in other subjects.

The discussion though of how energy should be incorporated into education doesn’t touch on what the value of energy education is, and whether energy knowledge translates into action and modified energy behavior. In the case of the United States, the answer seems to be that education around energy does not matter. Of the 38 household intervention studies reviewed by Abrahamse et al., not one intervention, or combination of interventions, resulted in long-term behavior changes. Similarly, the DeWaters and Powers paper states that there is no clear link between knowledge, attitude, and behavior (p. 1706) and that there is a “discrepancy between students’ attitudes and their actions”(p. 1705). These findings that energy knowledge has little to no impact on energy behavior bodes poorly for the argument that energy literacy should be taught in schools, especially when energy must compete against, and prove its value vis-à-vis other education topics.

Just because the knowledge-behavior link is lacking in American energy behavior academic literature does not negate the importance of encouraging energy literacy in schools. This is in part because modifying energy consumption behavior is only one of the energy literacy goals and because other countries offer successful examples of how energy education can instill “energy thrift and efficient behavior and attitudes in society”(DeWaters & Powers, 2011, p. 1700).

Works Referenced

Abrahamse, W., Steg, L., Vlek, C., & Rothengatter, T. (2005). A review of intervention studies aimed at household energy conservation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 273-291.

Anderson, S. T., & R. G. Newell. (2004). Information programs for technology adoption: The case of energy-efficiency audits. Resource and Energy Economics, 26, 27-50.

DeWaters, J. E., & Powers, S. E. (2011). Energy literacy of secondary students in New York State (USA): A measure of knowledge, affect, and behavior. Energy Policy, 39, 1699–1710.

Newell, R., & Siikamäki, J. Nudging Energy Efficiency Behavior: The Role of Information Labels. Presented at American Economic Association annual meeting. San Diego, CA. January 2013.

Southwell, B. G., Murphy, J. J., DeWaters, J. E., & LeBaron, P. A. (2012). Americans’ Perceived and Actual Understanding of Energy (RTI Press peer-reviewed publication No. RR-0018-1208). Research Triangle Park, NC: RTI Press.

From graduate student Sidharth Sharma:

As a student studying to receive an energy-related masters degree, it would be shortsighted for me to simply assume everyone must learn about the topic to the extent I have. However, similarly to how we teach history in order to avoid making past mistakes, I do believe teaching energy concepts in schools could help change the cultural perceptions and behaviors that drive consumption, so that we do not continue to consume at an unsustainable rate.  The efforts to increase knowledge should be combined with other interventions in order to elicit a real change in behavior.

Although several studies have demonstrated that information alone does not successfully drive behavioral change, further public knowledge about energy use can help plant the seed for later susceptibility to interventions such as commitments, goals, and feedback. I believe that using information and knowledge to influence underlying care and determinants could help improve the success of campaigns in the future by establishing an understanding of the need to conserve energy. Also, making information about energy more common knowledge could help alter the social norm in terms of energy use. Many studies argue that energy is such a daily part of our lives that we overlook it, so energy should be taught in the context of several different classes to demonstrate its ubiquity.

Since energy behavior and literacy is a multifaceted concept involving several aspects including history, science, policy, math, and psychology, that is how it should be handled in school curricula. With energy being an important current issue, history classes should discuss past energy crises as well as current issues surrounding the topic. Science classes could discuss the importance of coal and other sources of fossil fuels during the natural science or geology portions of the curriculum.  Finally, the implementation of energy efficiency or curtailment behaviors could be a part of the general education requirements taught in elementary schools alongside recycling.