Science education program teaches impacts of fossil fuels at their source

In Colorado’s oil- and gas-producing counties, science teachers broach a thorny subject in their own backyard.

 

You’d be surprised how many uses a horse catheter has. Just ask Tori Hellmann, a science teacher at Palisade High School, in western Colorado. In her classes this year, she’s using one to demonstrate fracking. She injects plaster of Paris through the catheter and into a plastic bottle of gelatin, busting the Jello apart.

“So it kind of simulates the idea of fracking," says Hellmann. "Not exactly, but it kind of gets the image across to the students so they can see that by using a fluid in a solid, you can get it to actually crack.”

A natural gas processing facility stands outside of Parachute, Colorado. About 30 miles away, at Palisade High School, new efforts are being made to teach students about the environmental impacts of fossil fuels.

Hellmann got the idea last summer, when she took a course developed by the University of Colorado’s AirWaterGas project and funded by the National Science Foundation to help teach students more about the impacts of fossil fuels. The environmental impacts of the fossil fuel industry can be a polarizing topic of conversation, especially in communities that depend on oil, gas and other extractive industries. But the new program is helping Colorado science teachers weave fossil fuel discussions into their classrooms – even in towns where it can be a touchy subject. Hellman was one of eight science teachers from several oil- and gas-producing counties in Colorado to go through the course. The development class lasts for six weeks online, before concluding with a two-day, in-person workshop.

Lisa Gardiner specializes in teacher training with AirWaterGas and helps coordinate the course.

“The reason that we’re gearing the course toward communities that have a lot of oil and gas development is that this is a great opportunity for place-based science education and that it can make science and engineering real and relevant to students,” says Gardiner.

She says fossil fuels provide a good example of a local issue with a far-reaching impact.

“The students in these communities can understand how their local environment is related to all these science and engineering processes, and then it also scales up, and we talked about global climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels as well, Gardiner says. So it’s a good example too of looking at something on a local scale that has a global impact.”

That kind of curriculum can be tricky in places where jobs depend on the fossil fuel industry. Wyoming lawmakers, for example, recently battled over science standards in schools, fearing that too much climate change curriculum would damage the economy.

In Palisade, many students have parents who work in the oil and gas industry. But Hellmann—who grew up in the coal town of Craig, Colorado—says her students have generally kept an open mind. She says the key is to focus on objective facts, tested by science. The class mostly discusses fossil fuel impacts on air and water quality, but also touches on some related social and economic issues. These kinds of activities help students stay informed.

“That’s probably the biggest takeaway I would hope that they get, is ‘Be informed,’ Hellmann says. They’re our future voters and you know that these are going to be issues in this state, so hopefully this will give them some background to want to be educated.”

Hellmann is well aware that the fossil fuel industry is a thorny topic, with costs and benefits that need to be considered.

“But there are times when you do share your opinions and I think that that’s OK for them to be aware of too,” she says. Because again, I grew up in a coal-mining community with the power plants, so I know how that can impact a whole city.”

The statewide program faces an uncertain future, with no funding currently lined up beyond this year.

Hellmann, though, hopes to make the subject into a full course someday, instead of just a couple units throughout the year.

She’ll keep using horse catheters, she says, though she’s not sure everyone will.

"I can only imagine what people do when they see that that’s what they have to buy. … It makes kids realize, or everybody goes, ‘Oh my God, that thing’s big!’ So it’s kinda like, oh, not so much fun for the horse, but it works well for this.”