Follow up on AAAS

As promised, I’m following up with some of the symposia I attended at the annual AAAS conference last weekend. The first one I want to discuss was called Learning Science in Informal Environments. Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell Univsersity began by introducing an NSF funded, NRC consensus study of the same title.  The report is available through the National Academies. The report assessed the evidence for science learning in non-traditional learning environments including science museums, nature walks, zoos, aquariums, etc. They report what they call the Six Strands of Learning: 1) excitement and motivation to learn 2) content and science knowledge 3) questioning and building reasons for phenomena 4) reflection 5) participation in activities 6) thinking of one’s self as a scientist or a science consumer. Dr. Philip Bell of the University of Washington, reported that informal environments may be more effective for diverse audiences, and that incorporation of culture, values, social and lived experiences into science education results in better reception of the material. Kirsten Ellenbogen of the St. Paul Science Museum spoke of “Citizen Science” programs in which people collect data and observations for real scientific research so that they are contributing to scientific knowledge, rather than just being taught science. This provides people with a better sense that science is not just a group of facts, but science is a way of knowing. Dr. Brian Smith of Pennsylvania State University spoke about the role of media in informal science learning remarking that the public lists the media as their major source of science information.  Smith spoke of the “CSI effect” which is changing people’s perception of who a scientist is—students think that scientists can be cool and scientists can be female as opposed to previously held stereotypes of scientists as nerdy men. The CSI effect also gives people a greater expectation for forensic evidence—for example when people serve on jury duty—even if such evidence is not feasible.

The last symposium I want to discuss is called Consequences of Changes in Energy Return on Energy Invested. Dr. Charles Hall from State University of New York, started off the discussion with his definition of Energy Return on Energy Invested or EROI which is basically the energy delivered to society over the energy put into that activity  (or in general terms EROI = [Eout-Ein]/Ein). This concept has very important implications for comparing energy sources, whether they be renewable or fossil fuels. For obvious reasons you  need an EROI value of greater than one for net energy gain, and you likely need an EROI value of somewhere between 3 and 8 (that is for every 1 unit of energy used, 3 to 8 units of energy are produced) for it to be economically feasible as an energy source. One can imagine that oil has a significantly higher EROI value than solar or wind (at this time), because the amount of energy we get from fossil fuels versus the work it takes to drill for them is much greater than the amount of energy we get from solar or wind considering the materials needed to build the solar panels or wind mills. However as we hit peak oil and it becomes more expensive to drill for fossil fuels, these relative EROI should change, but will they change enough? Dr. Tad Patzek from the University of Texas-Austin, followed up by saying that conventional oil peaked in 2004, coal will peak in 2-5 years, natural gas will peak in 20-30 years. He clarified that there are plenty of fossil fuels in the world, but that these fossil fuels are like a huge bank account with a limited daily ATM withdrawal amount. The speed with which we can extract fossil fuels is the limiting factor here, and we are overdrawing everyday. Patzek predicts a very drastic change in our lifestyles will be required soon because of the energy crisis. Dr. Margaret Mann of the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado, spoke of the EROI for renewable energy sources. Her method included not only the energy input versus the energy output, but other implications including greenhouse gas emissions, land use, fossil fuel use, water distribution, mineral consumption, equipment, and transportation which takes into account the Life Cycle Analysis of every energy source. She describes this larger perspective as “energy service” not just energy. She argues (against Hall and Patzek) that renewables can provide more energy than they consume. There were, without a doubt, serious disagreements among the panelists (and strong sense of confusion within the audience), but at the end of the session the panelist all agreed to pair up with the person with which they disagreed the most and reconcile their opinions enough to write a scientific article about an EROI topic of choice as a team.  Pretty cool…