Education on the energy debate

By Ruth Davenport

Canadian educators took the energy debate into their own hands this week.

During a two-day conference hosted by the Alberta Foundation for Environmental Learning on July 23-24, 29 teachers from across the country met to discuss new initiatives in energy education. The conference was preceded by a cross-Canada tour of the educators from elementary and secondary school sectors visiting energy source supply areas. The goal was to become familiar with current and emerging issues in the energy industry.

"[Teachers] have been trying to gain a better idea of what’s happening with energy now and what’s going to happen with energy in the next generation," explained Jim Martin, Managing Director of the AFEL. "The reason is to be able to sit down at this conference with people from industry, government, environmental organizations and community to talk about future directions for energy education for young people."

"The tour on Canada’s energy has been the highlight of my teaching career," said Calgary high school teacher Charles Walker. "I really feel able to provide direction for new energy education programming that is needed in Canadian schools."

The teachers identified methods such as curriculum expansion, optional courses and enhanced extra-curricular activities as ways to introduce energy education to their schools.

Alberta Energy Minister Murray Smith expressed appreciation for the initiative shown by the AFEL and the teachers who attended the conference.

"Energy education is important for a number of reasons," he said. "One is to provide a platform for better decision making in the future and second is to better understand what we do today. Thirdly, it has
environmental and economic consequences; the more the topic is debated, the more dialogue is engaged, the better informed decisions that we’ll make."

Martin explained that the AFEL’s work on energy education initiatives began before issues such as deregulation and climate change intensified the ongoing energy debate.

"Our work on this started three years ago when oil prices were way down and deregulation was still an idea," he said. "But we knew that there was no energy education going on, and as these issues came forward, it seemed obvious we’d have a population that wouldn’t be ready. We want to see a lot more education done that is driven by teachers."

Walker acknowledged the difficult task facing him.

"Students are often looking for concrete answers in terms of the ‘best choice’ energy source, but there are so many variables to consider," he said. "As a teacher, I face a challenge."

Peter Zimmerman, Manager of Environmental Services for BP Canada Energy Gas Business unit, emphasized the need to engage younger generations in the energy debate at an early age.

"You shouldn’t have to wait until you’re in university to learn about energy and issues related to it," he said. "The intent here is to have a comprehensive energy education program so that kids coming out of elementary and high school start off with a really good foundation. It’s a positive reinforcement cycle, the more they learn as they’re growing up, the more they understand and they can participate to a greater degree earlier."

Delegates and teachers at the conference met and questioned representatives from various parts of the energy sector. Martin emphasized the constructive spirit of the questioning and both Smith and Zimmerman agreed with the need for it.

"It’s absolutely critical to have these environments where you can drop your suits and have this type of dialogue in an intelligent manner–and agree to differ," said Smith. "It’s important to have these issues on the forefront of public policy."

"There’s a lot of discussion in the media about how we need more energy, but not a whole lot of discussion about the consequences of meeting that demand," added Zimmerman. "That’s why this is critical: letting people realize what the possible consequences are of increased energy demand and what we can do to prevent that from happening."

Martin explained that the conference will not be an annual event, but education initiatives arising from the conference will be revisited and redistributed within the provinces on a regular basis.

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