Fossil Fuels: Understanding a Nonrenewable Resource

Incorporate fossil fuel issues into your curriculum with these lesson plan ideas.

By Lynsey Peterson


fossil fuels lessons

Just like many adults, my high school students complain about the price of gasoline. Blame it on the government or a corporate conspiracy, or just a fact of nature, but rising gas prices are an unfortunate reality. Of course, this also makes it even more important to teach students about the pros and cons of fossil fuels.

Despite the bad reputation of fossil fuels, there have many advantages. Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas,  are rich fuel sources. They have lots of carbon bonds that release energy when they are burned or combusted. Fossil fuels have been around a long time; they were created even before the dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Fossil fuels also have had a great impact on our society.These energy sources helped fuel such things as the Industrial Revolution. Even though the price of petroleum in particular, is on the rise, fossil fuels remain one of the least expensive energy sources available. While students may be most familar with that fact that fossil fuels are used for energy, it's also important for them to understand the other uses of of these products, especially petroleum. I challenge them to find items around the classroom that use petroleum in their production. At first, students find this a difficult task.  However, after I give them a handout about the many uses of petroleum, they are able to find examples. From plastic bags, to paints and polar fleece, the products containing petroleum abound.

Perhaps it is this prevalence in our society that causes some of the concerns regarding fossil fuels. We are using these fuels far faster than they were created, which makes them a nonrenewable resource. Like any nonrenewable resource, fossil fuel supplies will eventually dwindle until they are depleted completely. An introductory course in economics can help your students understand how this will affect the demand and price of the resource. I illustrate the problems with nonrenewable resources with another classroom hunt. Before class, I scatter pennies around the room. Some are easy to find and others are well hidden. When my students enter the room for the day, I warn them to leave the pennies alone. Once I have introduced the activity, I give each student a cup and ten seconds to find as many pennies as they can. We return to our seats and count the pennies found. Students record their data in a table. We continue this activity for a few more ten-second intervals or until many students are unable to find any pennies. Once we combine the data from each round to a class total, students can create a line graph showing how a nonrenewable resource becomes more difficult to find as time goes on. We also discuss how the availability of a resource affects its price.

Of course, dwindling supplies and rising prices are not the only problem concerning fossil fuels. Once the rich carbon bonds are broken during combustion, carbon dioxide and other gases are released as air pollution. Many of the most harmful gases are removed from the exhaust from burning coal or oil, but carbon dioxide always makes it out into the atmosphere. People never really considered carbon dioxide much of a problem until we understood the greenhouse effect. This is why I use our unit on energy and fossil fuels to introduce the next unit on air pollution and climate change. I have found that integrating these issues in an environmental science course helps illustrate their integration in the real world. You could also incorporate global and economic studies within your unit on fossil fuels. Because of its many facets and perspectives, a fossil fuel unit could even be the focus of interdisciplinary studies. Try integrating fossil fuels into your curriculum with the following lesson plan ideas.

Fossil Fuels Resources

The Energy Crisis

Students learn about the current energy crisis, fossil fuels, nuclear power, energy policies, and alternative energy, then participate in various activities that bring all these topics together.

Energy and Cars: What Does the Future Hold?  

Students learn about current attitudes toward fossil fuels and how alternative energy sources may affect these attitudes in the coming years. They then learn how this change may affect the technology of cars in the future.

Chemical Consequences of Burning Fossil Fuels

Students conduct chemical experiments, such as adding oxides of nonmetals to water to form acids. From this they learn that fossil fuel combustion produces acid-forming oxides, which they relate to the chemical consequences of burning fossil fuels. 

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Lynsey Peterson