Burning gasoline, a fossil fuel, in cars produces the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide contributes to global climate change. We have several options besides gasoline for powering our cars – electricity and biofuels like ethanol. In this data dive, students interpret and analyze data on the greenhouse gas emissions from producing and using different fuels for vehicles. In the process, they apply the concept of a life cycle assessment to tally environmental impacts for each step of fuel production and use. Based upon this analysis, students develop an argument based on evidence for the fuel that is most environmentally sustainable.
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This Exploration Station highlights the role of biodiversity in sustainable bioenergy cropping systems. “Exploration Stations” are educational activities at public events that invite learners to interact with materials in a hands-on manner, and at their own pace. Learners can spend as much time with the activity as they choose. Exploration stations require one or more facilitators to guide learners through the activity. The facilitators’ role is to take cues from the learner to encourage inquiry-based scientific reasoning and experimentation. This can also serve as a simple engaging classroom activity for elementary and middle school students.
In this board game, players take on the role of bioenergy crop farmers trying to earn a living while being good environmental stewards. In the process, players explore the economic and environmental tradeoffs associated with growing different bioenergy crops. The game also serves as an engaging way to explore a range of environmental issues and ecological interactions related to climate change mitigation, biodiversity conservation, water quality and sustainable agriculture.
What is the difference between biofuels and fossil fuels? Why are researchers at GLBRC investigating making biofuels from corn stalks, grasses and other inedible plant material? This short interactive presentation introduces why GLBRC is researching making biofuels from non-food crops and traces the key steps in the production of biofuels from different plant materials. The presentation also explores the differences between biofuels and fossil fuels' role in the carbon cycle.
The Biofuels vs Fossil Fuels unit has students explore the similarities and differences between fossil fuels and biofuels. In the process, students investigate the carbon-transforming processes of combustion, photosynthesis, fermentation and respiration. They apply their knowledge of these processes to the global carbon cycle to examine how use of fossil fuels and biofuels have different effects on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and consequently global climate change. Students use their understanding of the global carbon cycle to study the claim that biofuels, such as ethanol made from plant material, can help reduce the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In addition, students examine the environmental impact of biofuels agriculture.
Overall, this unit has three important goals. These focus on: Matter and energy changes associated with the carbon-transforming processes, the effects of the use of fossil fuels and biofuels on the global carbon cycle and global climate change, and a cost/benefit analysis of the production and use of biofuels.
Students collect samples that they predict will contain communities of cellulose-degrading microbes and test for the ability of microrganisms in their samples to break down pure cellulose (filter paper). In the process, groups collect evidence to test predictions about which environmental microbial samples will be the most effective for degrading cellulose. By comparing results across groups, students can begin to uncover patterns and develop explanations about the types of environments that support cellulose-degrading microbes. This lab method is nearly identical to that used by GLBRC researchers and student results could help scientists discover new enzymes for efficient biofuel production.
In this flexible lab sequence, students convert cellulosic biomass sources, such as sawdust, straw, or cardboard into sugars and then ethanol. As biomass samples are pretreated, enzymatically digested, and fermented, students use glucose meters and ethanol probes to measure the key products of this chemical conversion. In the process, students can test predictions about which biomass sources and treatment methods will be most effective for producing ethanol.
Can microbiologists engineer new strains of yeast to produce more biofuel from the same amount of plant biomass? In this GLBRC Data Dive, students learn about how scientists Trey Sato and Audrey Gasch are using directed evolution techniques to create mutant yeast strains that can ferment all of the sugars in plan biomass, not just the glucose. Students analyze a data set from one of the scientist’s fermentation experiments to determine how a new mutant yeast strain performs compared to a standard yeast variety.
Can perennial biomass crops compete with king corn? In this GLBRC Data Dive, students analyze and interpret data on the biomass production of different bioenergy crops grown on Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) experimental farms in Wisconsin and Michigan. Students read a brief summary of the GLBRC research questions and experimental design. They then are given the task of interpreting real GLBRC biomass data to answer the research questions about how perennial biomass crops, such as switchgrass and prairies, compare to corn.
What effect does growing millions of acres of corn have on the plants and insects living in agricultural landscapes? Can we balance biomass production and biodiversity by using a variety of bioenergy crops? In this “data dive” students analyze data on the biodiversity of plants and beneficial living in different bioenergy crops. They also compare some of the important ecosystem services that bugs and plants provide in different crops and explore ways balancing the tradeoffs between producing biomass and maintaining some of the valuable benefits of biodiversity in farming landscapes.
The ability to explain the processes by which plants capture, store and use energy for growth and development is fundamental to understanding bioenergy. In this set of lessons, students investigate how plants harness and use different sources of energy during germination and growth. Students ask questions and make predictions about the sources of energy that plants use. They then plan and carry out investigations using Wisconsin Fast Plants® to collect evidence to test predictions and construct scientific arguments.
This high school-level lab demonstration and inquiry activity introduces students to the process of fermenting cellulosic biomass into ethanol, along with the challenges researchers face in this area. The demonstration uses a Vernier probe or balloons to measure fermentation rates of different feedstocks to begin the discussion of why some carbohydrates are easily fermented by yeast while others are not. Students can design and carry out their own labs to try to improve fermentation rates of various feedstocks. Students are encouraged to think about potential feedstocks and the biochemical processes necessary to convert each type of carbohydrate into fuel.
This field investigation serves to strengthen student understanding of the ability of plants to sequester carbon above and below ground. Students will measure above ground biomass by harvesting small samples, and root growth using ingrown root-cores. These activities are adaptable to school-yard plots, existing agricultural plots or natural areas.
In these field investigations, students explore the effects of biofuel crop production on invertebrate diversity and the effects those organisms have on pollination rates and weed seed predation. Teachers can choose from a suite of six field-sampling methods for investigations of school-yard biofuel plots, agricultural fields or existing natural communities.
In this game, players—both students and the public—take on the role of farmers working to sustainably grow crops to produce energy resources, earn income and improve ecosystem services. In doing so, players engage in sophisticated systems-level thinking and learn about: ecological and economic aspects of sustainability,
short and long term dynamics of the sustainable systems, and local and global impacts of individual farmer management decisions. Interacting with and making sense of game dynamics demonstrates the complexity involved with the sustainable production of bioenergy crops and facilitates engagement with current research and sustainability in ways that are difficult with traditional instructional approaches.
This set of lessons addresses the socio-scientific issue of sustainable fuels. Like most socio-scientific issues, there is no simple answer and even more complex solutions do not apply equally everywhere. Students address the complexity by first exploring the meaning of sustainability and how it applies to fuel production and use. Students then research the steps involved in producing multiple fuels or energy sources for vehicles including fossil fuels, biofuels, and electricity produced in a number of different ways. They explore the environmental impacts of each step with particular emphasis on carbon emissions. Students dig one step deeper as they examine data on the yields of different biofuel crops.
When selecting alternative fuels, it is important to consider the relative advantages and disadvantages of each. This activity asks students to begin to consider the life cycle energy and carbon dioxide emission costs of gasoline, corn ethanol, and cellulosic ethanol. The various pieces help students trace energy and matter through a complex system and begin to critically analyze graphical comparisons of different fuels.
This activity examines how soil microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, are involved in carbon cycling. Students design experiments to explore the relationship between microbial respiration rates and soil variables such as temperature, habitat, soil type, and agricultural management choices. Four methods for measuring CO2 released from soil are provided, one in the field (CO2 probe), and three in the lab (CO2 probe, bromothymol blue (BTB) and acid-base titration).
This mini fermenter can be used to conduct small-scale fermentation investigations or demonstrations similar to research done by GLBRC scientists. The design allows for students to use simple techniques and classroom-grade probes to collect data during fermentation on a range of variables, such as ethanol concentration, CO2 production, temperature and pH. The complete mini fermenter can be built with readily-available supplies for approximately $20 (detailed supplies list included with instructions).
This activity helps students visualize and model a commonly published diagram of global carbon pools and fluxes. Students create a scaled 3-D visual of global carbon pools and net fluxes between pools with anthropogenic influences. The relative sizes of the pools can be modeled with stacks of poker chips, rolled columns of printer paper or similar. The fluxes can be represented by bingo chips, pennies or similar. Supplemental discussion questions guide students through considering the forms of carbon in pools, key carbon transforming processes associated with fluxes, and the implications for climate change.