Local Issues Power Deep Learning


In north central Ohio’s Seneca County, the building of large wind turbines on relatively flat farmland is controversial.  A drive down the county’s rural roads reveals how divided the community is regarding that prospect.  Firmly planted signs for and against wind power dot the landscape with an occasional billboard more loudly expressing a specific opinion.

High school environmental science teacher, Jon Darkow, describes the dispute: “Wind turbines generate clean energy that can reduce climate change and provide economic gains to townships, schools, and landowners. However, some community members think they are aesthetically unappealing, can potentially reduce property values, and cause stress-related health effects.” 

Rather than impose a particular viewpoint on his students, Mr. Darkow challenges them to investigate the issue’s pros and cons, costs and benefits, for themselves. At the start of the project, students were divided on their opinions.

“This is what is referred to as a ‘Wicked Problem’,” explains Mr. Darkow, who teaches a college credit course at Seneca High School East in Attica. “It’s a problem that is incredibly complex with no real easy solution. It also has competing interests that prevent resolution.”

With a Grant-to Educators from the Jennings Foundation, he challenged students to conduct controlled experiments focusing on the greenhouse effect; engineer their own wind turbines to learn how they generate electricity and optimize power output; and construct computational models to explore and communicate their findings.

“Students often learn about global issues abstractly,” says Mr. Darkow, a 15-year teaching veteran who says he follows climate change policy closely and thought this would be an excellent opportunity for students to investigate an authentic environmental science problem. “But this is something that is happening in their own community that has local – as well as global – implications.”

In fall 2018, Mr. Darkow’s students designed multiple experiments and collected data on the greenhouse effect and how wind turbines generate electricity. “When they are manipulating a greenhouse gas experiment with plastic bottles or playing with wind turbines and their power output, they understand what those words actually mean because they are seeing it happen in front of them,” he says. 

Through the experiments, students discovered that air with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide heats the air temperature faster than the ambient air temperature. “By observing that carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, they learned why carbon emissions are an important part of the science and politics of global warming and climate change,” Mr. Darkow remarks.

“The students are 100 percent engaged,” he adds. “This gives them the opportunity to work with their hands and their brains simultaneously.” 

Overall, he says, students learned that where we source energy and how that is impacting local and global communities is really important. The project showed that energy use has consequences and the sourcing of energy and its effects are far-reaching and complex. “I learned that whenever possible, have your students experience a topic and make it relevant to their community issues, which they may discuss over dinner,” he adds.