Polar Bears and PCs: Technology’s Unintended Consequences

How Does an iPod Affect a Polar Bear?

Photo courtesy of Amanda Graham (Yukon White Light) via Flickr.

When we talk about the problems of global climate change, we tend to focus on cars and coal-burning power plants as major contributors. Yet there are other significant players, including consumer electronics. The number of cell phones, MP3 players, laptops, and flat-screen TVs is increasing rapidly, and not just in wealthier nations. It is estimated that one in nine people in Africa has a cell phone – and those numbers are expected to continue growing.

A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that new devices such as MP3 players, cell phones, and flat-screen TVs will triple energy consumption. Two hundred new nuclear power plants would be needed just to power all the TVs, iPods, PCs, and other devices expected to be used by 2030.

For example, consider televisions. The IEA estimates that 2 billion TVs will soon be in use across the world (an average of 1.3 TVs for every household with electricity). TVs are also getting bigger and being left on for longer periods of time. IEA predicts a 5 percent annual increase in energy consumption between 1990 and 2030 from televisions alone.

While consumer electronics is the fastest growing area, it is also the area with the least amount of policies to control energy efficiency. Total greenhouse gas emissions for electronic gadgets is currently at about 500 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. If nothing is done, the IEA estimates that the figure will double to about 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. However, the agency says that existing technologies could reduce this figure by 30-50 percent at little cost. Allowing consumers to regulate energy consumption based on the features they actually use, minimum-performance standards, and easy-to-read energy labels can help consumers make smarter energy choices about their personal electronics.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

This story connects to two National Science Education Standards domains: Science and Technology and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives. The Science and Technology content standard states:

Technological solutions have intended benefits and unintended consequences. Some consequences can be predicted, others cannot.

The Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standard includes resource use and depletion, human-induced and naturally occurring hazards, and science and technology in society.

Ask students to consider electronic gadgets – cell phones, digital cameras and video cameras, MP3 players, flat-screen TVs, laptops, and so forth. Have students brainstorm the benefits of these devices. Easier communication, access to data, entertainment, and mobility will probably come up. Then ask students to brainstorm “costs” or negative characteristics. Expense will certainly be mentioned, but will the energy cost?

If you have access to an electric power monitor such as a Kill-a-Watt, you can have students plug in different gadgets and compare power consumption. This simple activity can give rise to a number of inquiry-based investigations, such as: What’s the most energy-efficient MP3 player?; Do laptops and desktops consume the same amount of power?; Does screen size (on an MP3, cell phone, laptop, or TV) affect power consumption?; and so on.

Share some of the figures from the IEA report with students. Discuss the idea that making technology (cell phones, laptops and Internet access) available to more people is a good thing, but there are intended and unintended consequences. Greater access to technology enables widespread communication and promotes education, but also requires more energy – most of which comes from fossil fuels. Burning those fossil fuels releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change and causing Arctic sea ice decline. So all those iPods do impact polar bears after all.

Rather than leave students discouraged, present them with a challenge. Remind them of the many benefits of technology and acknowledge that electronic gadget use will continue to grow rapidly. How can science and technology address the unintended environmental consequences of these tools? Assign small groups of students a particular piece of technology and have them brainstorm ideas that would promote energy efficiency – either on the part of the consumer or the manufacturer, or both. Have groups present their solutions to the class and discuss them. What common solutions were raised? What can students and their families do now to use their electronic devices in a responsible manner?

Here are some related resources from the Middle School Portal 2: Energy Sources, The Power of Electricity,  What is Happening to Polar Bears? Real Data, Claims, and Evidence. The October 2008 issue of the free online magazine Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears included articles about natural resources, the NEED project, and energy efficiency activities for home and school.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Jessica Fries-Gaither and published June 1, 2009 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Lights Out March 27th for Earth Hour

At 8:30 p.m., local time, on March 27, hundreds of millions of people around the globe are expected to turn out their lights to observe Earth Hour. The event is a global initiative begun by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) three years ago to recognize the need for action on climate change.

This year, 1,100 cities in 100 countries are participating. Lights will go off in some iconic landmarks in major cities. Tokyo Tower and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin are among landmarks that will go dark for the first time this year, joining familiar U.S. sites, such as Mount Rushmore and the Golden Gate Bridge.

An online toolkit at the Earth Hour web site offers public service announcements, templates for local newsletters and other promotion helps, and classroom lesson plans.

Can You Turn the Broken Solar Lights Back On?

Recently, a reader asked for ideas on teaching about solar-powered lights. She wrote:

I would like to find an activity that utilizes the solar panels from garden solar lights. I know that I could probably find many broken solar lights and was wondering if anyone has any ideas? Electricity and solar panels are not my best areas. Thanks, Denise, 8th-grade science teacher.

Solar power is becoming increasingly popular as more people realize its environmental advantages. It produces no climate-changing gases and it is relatively cheap. A careful look around and you are likely to spot devices running on solar power, such as a highway alert signs or your neighbor’s landscape lights.

A study of solar panels or photovoltaic (PV) cells aligns well with the National Science Education Standards, which indicate middle-level students should acquire abilities of and understanding about scientific inquiry and technological design. The Physical Science standards suggest students gain knowledge of properties and changes in matter and transfer of energy.

The science of PV cells is more abstract than most middle school students are ready for, since it operates on principles of atomic particles’ properties and distribution. But the issue can be explored from the core concept of transfer of energy. That is, solar energy enters the “black box” of the PV cell and is converted into electric energy. Teachers can also set up a variety of circuits and allow students to “discover” which are most effective and hypothesize why. Lessons can be extended to discussions of the feasibility of solar-powered homes and factories and the pros and cons of converting from coal to solar energy. Those discussions would connect to the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives standards.

The following resources will provide teachers with background knowledge regarding PV cells. When teachers feel comfortable with the science, they can consider modifying the last resource, a comprehensive high school lab activity, for middle school use.

But, one more thing, Denise — If you have broken solar garden lights, you will most likely need to order the replacement parts from the manufacturer to get them to operate as needed.

Solar Landscape Lighting


How Do Photovoltaics Work?


Spotlight on Photovoltaic Cells


Investigating Earth Systems – Energy Investigation 6: Solar Energy


Lesson and Lab Activity with Photovoltaic Cells


We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 11/21/2011.

Energy Sources

Running on empty? Not yet, but national energy decisions may be a bigger issue in our students’ lifetimes. A number of groups have created appealing web sites to teach young people about sources of energy as well as the environmental and economic pros and cons of relying on them.

Explore More: The Future of EnergyNSDL Annotation
The energy segment from Iowa Public Television’s multimedia Explore More project is a comprehensive examination of the topic, giving profiles of eight energy sources, experts’ viewpoints, many teaching tools, and opportunities for students to express their opinions.

Energy in-Depth: TimelineNSDL Annotation
From the Explore More web site, this timeline highlights important events in the formation, discovery, and uses of each energy source—from 4,300,000 B.C.E. to the 21st century.

Energy StoryNSDL Annotation
A feature of the California Energy Commission’s Energy Quest, this site offers 20 chapters of information about energy sources, from fossils to wind currents. The site also provides science projects, games, and links to dozens of online resources.

What Is Energy?NSDL Annotation
The Kid’s Page from the federal Energy Information Administration web site offers information on renewable and nonrenewable energy, puzzles (including sudoku), science fair projects, and more for teachers and students.

We Need Your Help

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. You can also request email notification when new content is posted (see right navigation bar).

Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We want your feedback on all of the NSDL Middle School PortalNSDL Annotation publications. Email us at msp@msteacher.org.