ENERGY, Power to the People

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Green Design

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Science
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

1 hour


Local and global energy policies are rapidly changing around the world. We use more electricity now than we’ve ever used before. The typical American on average uses 936 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month in their homes. That’s in comparison to nearly half or a quarter of the use in any other country. In the United States, energy in now considered a top economic, health and environmental priority. In response, energy efficiency programs and renewable energy incentives have developed across the country. These policies are driving engineers and designers to imagine new infrastructure, technologies and implementation strategies that will meet or exceed policy goals and expectations.
Whether we live in a small cabin or a large metropolis, we contribute to the overall energy consumption and utilize the country's energy delivery infrastructure.
In this lesson, students will consider relationships between environmental policy and design. Students will research local energy issues in their school or community and design a policy to address this issue. The exercise will complement social studies standards that connect students to issues of civic responsibility and US History.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Level III (Grade 6-8)
Level III (Grade 6-8)
Level III (Grade 6-8)

Common Core State Standards

 English Language Arts Standards: Speaking and Listening

Grade 6-8

Comprehension and Collaboration:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1.A Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.2 Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.3 Delineate a speaker's argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and relevance and sufficiency of the evidence and identifying when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.4 Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.5 Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grade 8 Language standards 1 and 3 here for specific expectations.)

English Language Arts Standards: Reading Informational Text

Grade 6-8    

Key Ideas and Details:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.3 Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.5 Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to the development of the ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.6 Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author distinguishes his or her position from that of others.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.7 Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium's portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.8 Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-7.9 Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

English Language Arts Standards: History/Social Studies

Grade 6-8

Key Ideas and Details:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.3 Identify key steps in a text's description of a process related to history/social studies (e.g., how a bill becomes law, how interest rates are raised or lowered).

Craft and Structure:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.8 Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.

English Language Arts Standards Writing 

Grade 6-8

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2 Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2.D Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.
  • Production and Distribution of Writing:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.5 With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas clearly and efficiently.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.


o Students will design a policy for introducing renewable energy sources and efficiency measures into local infrastructure.
o Students will learn about environmental policy and citizen’s role in shaping and defining these policies.
o Students will learn about major environmental policy legislation in the United States.
o Students will consider how policy affects the physical design of the buildings and products we use everyday.



Paper, pencils, access to internet


  •  A renewable energy credit is any tax credit offered by a local or federal taxation authority as an incentive for the installation and operation of renewable energy systems such as solar or wind power.
  •  A carbon offset is a financial instrument aimed at a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
  •  A carbon tax is an environmental tax on emissions of carbon dioxide.
  •  Energy conservation is the practice of decreasing the quantity of energy used.
  •  A smart grid delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using two-way digital technology to control appliances at consumers' homes to save energy, reduce cost and increase reliability and transparency.
  •  The Clean Water Act is the primary federal law in the United States governing water pollution.
  •  The Clean Air Act is one of a number of pieces of legislation relating to the reduction of smog and air pollution in general.


An Introduction to Environmental Policy (10 Minutes – Review)
You can begin the lesson with a discussion about environmental policy in the US. Environmental policy focuses on problems arising from human impact on the environment.
  •  EPA  - The Environmental Protection Agency is a federal agency charged with the protection of human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress.
  •  Local/State – Each state has a Department of Environmental Conservation/Protection in some form that regulates more local policies.
Quick History
  •  Clean Air Act - The Clean Air Act is one of a number of pieces of legislation relating to the reduction of smog and air pollution. The United States federal government has enacted a series of clean air acts, beginning with the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, and followed by the Clean Air Act of 1963, the Air Quality Act of 1967, the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970, and Clean Air Act Amendments in 1977 and 1990.
  •  Clean Water Act - The Clean Water Act is the primary federal law in the United States governing water pollution passed in 1972 and amended in 1987.
  •  Recycling legislation - Legislation for recycling is on a local level. Four methods of such legislation exist: minimum recycled content mandates, utilization rates, procurement policies, recycled product labeling.
  •  Car emissions standards - Emissions standards are requirements that set specific limits to the amount of pollutants that can be released into the environment. EPA regulates standards for autos.
  •  Energy efficiency (Energy Star) - Energy Star is an international standard for energy efficient consumer products created in 1992.
Focus now on energy policy issues.  Although electricity is a clean and relatively safe form of energy to use, there are environmental impacts associated with the production and transmission of electricity. Nearly all types of electric power plants impact or effect the environment, some more than others.
The United States has laws to reduce these impacts. Perhaps the most important such law is the Clean Air Act, which established regulations for the control of air emissions from most power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers the Act and sets emissions standards for power plants through various programs, such as the Acid Rain Program. As a result of the Act  some major types of air pollutants have witnessed a substantial reduction of emissions in the United States.
The headquarters for the EPA are located in Washington, DC.
Use this opportunity to connect to Social Studies lessons about civics and the US political system. Reflect on historical and contemporary issues while maintaining a focus on environmental concerns.
Current Policy, Possible Futures (10 Minutes – Investigate)
What are the current energy policies in the US? Energy policy is the manner in which a government addresses issues of energy development including energy production, distribution and consumption. The attributes of energy policy may include legislation, international treaties, incentives to investment, guidelines for energy conservation, taxation and other public policy techniques.
Ask students to investigate some questions:
o What is the history of the Unite State’s energy policy?
o How recently was energy policy legislation changed and how do these policies compare to those of other developed nations?
o What steps are we taking to expand our use of renewable energy?
Also talk about how energy policy affects our everyday lives. Energy policies influence many things, from the price of consumer goods to our electricity bills and gas prices.
How does energy policy affect designers and the designs they create? Use examples:
  •  In the 1990s Germany regulated recycling on the producer side, making it a law that companies must take back their waste. Companies responded by producing products with little or no packaging.
  •  Currently the California Air Resources Board is attempting to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, stemming from previous attempts like an electric car mandate. Car manufacturers are responding with more efficient cars and hybrids.
  •  Energy Star became the standard for consumer electronics resulting in more efficient gadgets and appliances.
  •  CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) were banned in the 1990s to prevent ozone layer damage and haven’t resurfaced in products since.
Designers of a diverse range of products have adapted their work to comply with these standards.
Policy Problems (10 minutes - Frame/Reframe)
What additional energy policies exist now? The US Department of Energy (and in particular the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy) help set the tone for a US Energy Policy. Current programs/incentives include:
  •  Energy efficiency and conservation – Programs like the Weatherization Assistance Program, which started in 1977, help home and building owners weatherize their buildings with insulation and other measures.
  •  Producer subsidies – Subsidies given to power plant operators to use better technologies and increase efficiency programs.
  •  Consumer subsidies – Tax rebates for renewables and other energy efficiency measures.
  •  Renewable energy grants
  •  Smart grid and infrastructure improvements
What problems exist now with energy policy? Why don’t we have a mandatory renewable energy policy? Is there a problem? How does a policy get enforced? Discuss some of these issues as a class.
Technology Connection
A broad range of technologies are helping policymakers and communities alike to get involved in politics on local and global levels.
  •  Mobile Activism – Groups like Oxfam and Greenpeace are using mobile technologies to get interested people involved in campaigns and out to polls to vote on vital issues that effect the environment.
  •  The Open Planning Project – TOPP Labs is an incubator for civic tech initiatives creating projects like the Community Almanac, which shares stories about places all over the country and the Livable Streets Initiative, which advocates for pedestrian and bike friendly neighborhoods. and
  •  Opinion Space – The US Department of State has opened up an online international forum for people to voice their concerns about issues including the state of our global environment.
Policy Design Lab (20 minutes - Generate Possible Solutions)
After a discussion about historical and current environmental policy issues, challenge students to design a new energy policy for their community. To start a debate consider an example from the 2010 National Design Triennial’s case study about a proposed city outside of Abu Dhabi called Masdar, pictured below.
Masdar Development - Masdar is a brand-new, self-contained, sustainable city of forty thousand residents currently being built on the desert outskirts of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. A vast experiment, its design pushes ideas of alternative energy, aiming to be the world’s first car-free, carbon-neutral, zero-waste city powered by renewable energy sources. To achieve this, its master planner, the London-based firm of Foster + Partners, is applying new approaches to architecture and engineering on an urban scale. The only source of water will be produced through a solar-powered desalination process in which sea water is converted to fresh water. Water usage will be reduced from a national daily average of 143 to about 21 gallons per person by recycling waste-water and by using low-flow fixtures, waterless urinals, and a leak-detection system. The sun will be the primary source of energy, captured in thin-film solar panels in the largest solar plant in the Middle East; and supplemented by wind turbines and waste-to-power plants, which use garbage retrieved from a garbage-collection network as fuel.
How does this proposed sustainable city address many of the important energy and environmental policy issues facing the US and other nations?
Divide students into policy design teams. Each policy created must include measures addressing:
  •  Energy conservation and efficiency measures
  •  Renewable energy quotas
  •  Implementation strategy
  •  Time scales
To focus teams – give them each a specific area or energy policy to ponder. Examples include:
  •  Energy efficiency
  •  Renewable energy
  •  Infrastructure (i.e. power lines, power plants, etc.)
  •  Building performance (weatherizing buildings)
Encourage each team to come up with a proposed title, a description and diagrams of how the policy would work.
Help students brainstorm.  To begin, create venn diagrams and maps of the region in which you live. Remember to focus students on local, state and regional issues. (Edit and develop)
School EPA Presentation (15 minutes)
After policies have been designed, have each design team present in front of a “Class EPA.” The Class EPA will determine whether or not the policy makes sense, if it's sound and could be used in the community. Each student will have one vote for each policy design. One will be chosen. The newly adopted policy should be signed by members of the Class EPA. (Share and Evaluate)
If you have time for further discussion, talk about potential implementation. How does one present a policy to a local legislator? Find out who is in your congressional district. Mail them a copy of your class policy. (Finalize the Solution)
Post the newly adopted policy somewhere in the school!  This will encourage other students and teachers to be energy conscious, extending the impact of the lesson beyond the dry-erase board.  (Articulate)


Reflection Questions
  • Are you surprised to learn how much governmental policies affect the way that we use energy?
  • Do you feel that your energy plan could be improved in the future to make it more applicable in the real world?  What strengths and flaws can you identify in your work today?
  • What design challenges might develop in the future because of our energy consumption today?
  • Is it okay to have higher taxes today in order to finance the development of a secure energy system for tomorrow?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • Begin with a discussion about rules and laws. What are the rules at school? What are the rules at home? What is the difference between rules and laws? What laws must we follow? Who creates these laws and who regulates them?
  • After discussing some of the environmental challenges our country is facing, ask students to brainstorm laws and policies to make our environment healthier and safer. Encourage wild ideas.
  • In design teams, students can choose one of the ideas discussed as a class and refine it. After class presentations, students can vote for their favorite policy and discuss how it might be implemented.
Differentiation for High School:
  • Older students can research different energy policies now being debated in Congress, including their pros and cons.
  • Hold a mock legislation session in your classroom. Students can debate these policies from the points of view of different state representatives, environmental groups, traditional energy companies such as coal and petroleum, and renewable energy companies such as solar and wind. Allow the legislators to cast their vote.

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