Coal and Oil: Powering Our Way of Life

Author: Catharine Niuzzo Honaman

Time: 2 days
30 minutes to read lesson plan and copy forms
Materials: Copies of lesson matrix for each student


The lesson begins with the basic question of why should we be interested in understanding how oil and coal powered energy and petrochemicals derived from oil contribute to the American way of life. Why would a high school student care about this topic? The class will answer these questions by working with a matrix, which makes obvious all the ways our society relies on oil and coal to create the high standard of living to which we are accustomed.

Purpose – This is the Engage Lesson. In this lesson students will become aware of how oil
(and petrochemicals) and coal create the sophisticated society we live in.

Students will be able to:
1. Identify and represent some common products that are made using petrochemicals and some of the effects that higher gasoline and coal prices would have on the American economy in a graphical format
2. Synthesize information from multiple sources and highlight insights in a class discussion.

Strand 2: Concept 2: Functional Text
PO 2. Synthesize information from multiple sources to draw conclusions.

Teacher Background

Resource Websites

Look up “petrochemicals” in the Encyclopedia Britannica on CD ROM if your school has access to it.



1. Begin the class by asking the obvious: “Why should a high school student care about the availability of inexpensive oil and coal?” “Why should YOU care about how the United States delivers power to its industries and society?” Depending on whether the students have been to the first science and government classes or not will probably determine whether they have answers of substance or not. Even if the students cannot point to anything that would make them interested in this topic, you have a starting point; you will have to support them more as they work on the matrix to get them going.

2. On the matrix, start with the Direct Impact column. What are the products that are made with petrochemicals that make our comfortable lives possible? How do we use gasoline and coal? If students have a hard time getting going ask them how their lives are different from those of people living a hundred or two hundred years ago. Depending on whether the students have the knowledge necessary to fill in most of the Direct Impact column or not, you may wish to fill these in as a class or by having the students do so in small groups then share their ideas in a whole class discussion. You may come up with many more things that are on the teacher copy of the matrix.

3. Next ask the students to get with a partner and to brainstorm the outcomes that will go in the following column of Impact/Availability. In other words, think out loud about the consequences on all aspects of the economy if one raw material, crude oil, goes up in price. What does the cost of a barrel of oil have to do with a person’s quality of life in general? It goes far beyond the initial effect of making one’s gasoline bill go up. What will be sacrificed to pay for a higher gasoline or home heating bill? Would some things become too costly for teenagers to buy? Would a parent’s job or a student’s part time position be cut because sales were so depressed in a certain area? When the class comes together to compare answers in the Impact/Availability column ask the students to predict what further ripples would be caused by each price increase or lack of availability of a product. At the same time, consider what viable alternatives exist. Is it realistic to have large groups of people implementing these alternatives? What are the drawbacks of each or what must be done for them to be practical for an entire nation to employ?

4. Hopefully, the students will begin to see the highly interdependent nature of our energy production with our economy and standard of living. While there are no simple answers, it is important to start to ask questions and to look beyond initial consequences. The purpose of this lesson is not to dishearten, but to stimulate thought, to dispel the assumption that “someone” (else) needs to take care of this situation, or that the government should just “fix” the problem. This lesson is designed to dovetail into the initial physics lessons in this quarter and to create authentic interest in the question of how the United States needs to prepare to power the nation in a way that supports both economic success and environmental health.

From this lesson it is evident that coal and oil sustain our highly complex, industrialized, sophisticated society. But there are tradeoffs with any source of power. Ask the students if they can point to any political or economic downsides (such as dependence on foreign nations for our supplies) and health impacts (these sources of power are putting chemicals into the environment that have been linked to various diseases) from relying on just coal and oil. Just how complex the situation is will be the subject of the next lesson.

Embedded Assessment
Student engagement in this lesson can be assessed by the quality and quantity of the answers that students supply for the matrix and by the amount of meaningful class participation.


Embedded Assessment

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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