The biofuels industry, long the target of misinformation campaigns and general misunderstanding from the public, is laying out the facts and setting minds on the right track at an early age.
Growth Energy, in partnership with Future Farmers of America (FFA) and the National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE), has created a first-of-its-kind biofuels curriculum for high school students. The program is free for teachers to download and covers practically every aspect of the industry, from production to policy to environmental benefits to rural development.
Dubbed “Biofuels in the Classroom,” the hands-on course includes STEM-based activities along with biofuels history and discussions on policy, environmental benefits, economic effects and more.
“We are thrilled to introduce students from both rural and urban areas to the world of biofuels,” Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor says. “From the field to gas tank and all the way to the White House, biofuels play a critical role in our nation’s fuel supply and our energy policy, and we hope that students are inspired by the impact biofuels have on driving innovation through science and technology.”
Partners with a purpose
Biofuels in the Classroom was developed as a partnership, with each member bringing something key to the table. Growth Energy provided the vision, goals and industry knowledge. NAAE provided expertise in building curriculum around agriculture themes and incorporating STEM-based learning. FFA, with 700,000 students and 11,000 teachers involved, provides access to classrooms.
Carl Aakre, Curriculum Coordinator for CASE (Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education) worked as part of NAAE to develop the program. Previous to this, the available materials for teachers were old and surface-level. The goal, Aakre says, is to make it as easy as possible for teachers to incorporate an important topic into their classrooms.
“We wanted to make it more in-depth. We wanted to get as much info to the teachers as possible,” he says. “They can focus on the students and teaching and not have to develop the curriculum.”
Kelly Manning, Vice President of Development at Growth Energy, says that as they looked around the country, they saw a real need for updated information for classrooms.
“We realized that all the content, even in our backyards, was dated,” he says.
Doug Berven, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at POET, travels the world educating the public about biofuels. He says the industry faces “an uphill battle” in communicating those benefits to the world.
“The problem is, we are taking market share from the most powerful political force on the planet – oil. That is not going to come easy, and oil has all the money in the world to cast doubt on the mind of the American consumer,” he says. “We need to fight back with fact, data and reality.”
Growth Energy’s goals extend well beyond the Midwest audience, and that is why the partnership with FFA is so important.
“Our vision for the biofuels curriculum aims to empower and inform students in every state of our nation,” Skor says. “In fact, nearly half of students with National FFA are from non rural communities, and we’ve had teachers download our curriculum from nearly every state in the U.S., including teachers in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.”
Manning agrees. In many ways, reaching those students in states without a strong biofuel presence is even more important. FFA has the most students in states like California, Texas and Georgia.
“There’s less than 10 ethanol plants in those states, and lots of people,” he says.
Touching every aspect of the industry
In building the curriculum, Aakre says they sought to provide a comprehensive view of the industry, addressing not only what the industry is and how biofuels are made, but also why they are important.
“The activities are designed to encourage students to inquire and think critically about the science and economics of ethanol production and its importance in the agricultural industry,” he says. “The curriculum integrates the math, science, business and history of ethanol in a way for agricultural instructors to engage students in the classroom.”
Skor says the “why” is a key component. As biofuel use grows and higher blends are more readily available, the public needs to know the facts and how it benefits the world.
“We’re also speaking to the next generation of drivers on the road, and we hope that with a greater understanding of ethanol’s many benefits for the environment, the economy, and the consumer that they’ll be proud to choose UNL88 and fuel up their car up with E15,” she said.
Berven says there are so many benefits including “the environment, the economy, energy security, consumer prices, agriculture, engine performance and more.” One that resonates with many students today is biofuel’s benefits in fighting climate change.
Berven says that the environmental benefits of biofuels extend beyond lowering transportation emissions. It also helps farmers afford to do important work to help the environment.
“Without biofuels, grains are oversupplied, and agriculture has no margin,” he says. “Without a margin in agriculture, our farmers can’t afford the latest technology for precision ag, cover crops, buffer zones, etc.”
Students learn early in the course the history of the biofuels industry and study how ethanol is made. They move on to learn the importance of biofuels for the local, state and U.S. economies and how policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard help level the playing field in the fuel market.
This information and more is applied in the classroom through activities including producing ethanol and distillers grain from corn and cellulosic ethanol from corn-based cellulose. Other activities include policy debates and fuel testing.
“It’s an exciting, hands-on experience that allows teachers and students to produce their own biofuels in the classroom and measure its energy content and greenhouse gas emissions,” Skor says.
Teachers are responding
Together, the partnership has resulted in 1,600 downloads since its launch last spring for teachers to use in the fall semester.
The last FFA convention included about 70,000 students, the largest gathering of students in the world. They got more than 300 downloads from that convention alone.
Skor attributes that to the expertise and attention to detail by all partners of Biofuels in the Classroom.
“We credit that success to the years of hard work behind the scenes to develop the biofuels curriculum and the incredible partnership we have with the National Association of Ag Educators to ensure that this curriculum is easy to implement and meets the high standards of our educators,” she says.
Building knowledge for the future
The impact of Biofuels in the Classroom and its partners will be greatest in the years to come, as students take the knowledge they gain in school and apply it in the real world either directly – through careers in biofuels, agriculture and energy – or indirectly as users and advocates for biofuels.
That’s what resonates with Skor.
“As a mother of two, I care about what I’m putting in my tank and rest easy knowing I’m making a cleaner choice at the pump by filling up with ethanol blends,” she says. “That’s why we’re so excited about the biofuels curriculum – because it’s important to educate our next generation of leaders and grow support for biofuels, like ethanol, to inspire renewable innovation and promote economic growth in our heartland for years to come.”