By Matthew Inman, Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow, U.S. Department of Energy 
(This article appears in the May, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

To better educate Americans, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is leading a collaborative effort, the Energy Literacy Initiative (ELI), to define and promote energy literacy. If more people had a basic understanding of energy, resources, generation and efficiency, families and businesses could make more informed decisions on ways to save money by saving energy. More broadly, people would better understand the energy landscape, allowing them to better understand local, national and international energy policy. Current national and global issues such as safeguarding the environment and our nation’s energy security highlight the need for energy education. The U.S. is behind in the global movement toward clean energy. We must become a leader in this movement to lead the 21st century global economy. The need for energy education has never been more pertinent.

DOE offices, programs, and national laboratories are working collaboratively on energy education efforts to support the Department’s core mission and to ensure an energy literate citizenry capable of tackling our nation’s energy challenges. DOE’s energy literacy efforts bring together stakeholders from federal agencies, universities, community colleges, professional societies, national labs, power utilities, museums, community organizations, business and industry, interested members of the public and more. The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s partner agencies are collaboratively drafting a guiding document on energy literacy titled, Energy Literacy: The Essential Principles of Energy Education. This document will follow a model established by previous literacy projects such as the one that produced the document, Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science. Through public meetings and online collaborative tools, the stakeholders listed above have already contributed a great deal, informing the document and demonstrating a passion for energy education. Stakeholder input is helping create a thoughtful, measured approach to energy literacy and a quality document.

The first version of Energy Literacy is expected to be completed this coming autumn. The document will provide context, background and definitions, along with identifying the essential principles and fundamental concepts that underlie energy literacy. An inherently interdisciplinary topic, energy education involves civics, geography, social studies, history, economics, sociology, technology, engineering, and the natural sciences. Energy Literacy: The Essential Principles of Energy Education will touch on all of these subjects. The guide will highlight what is essential for all citizens to know. These fundamental concepts are being drawn, in part, from existing education standards and benchmarks.

Although everyone will be encouraged to read and use the document, it will be specifically intended for the energy educator. Energy Literacy will be used in multiple contexts and as a guide for energy education at all age levels. For example, formal educators such as K-12 and university educators will use it as a resource for curriculum design, and for standards and assessment development. Community, museum and library educators will use it as a resource when designing education and outreach opportunities specific to their venues and audiences. Ultimately, the goal of the ELI is to foster a culture of smart energy use in business, at home, and throughout our communities on a national level.

Because Energy Literacy is not a curriculum, a second project phase will focus on developing education and outreach materials to accompany the framework, helping lay a foundation for energy education nationwide. DOE is calling on educators, academic institutions, federal agencies, industry, organizations, and beyond to increase support for energy education. Success in meeting the energy education challenge depends on the involvement and efforts of institutions and individuals nationwide. DOE is promoting energy literacy from within in many ways, including sponsoring competitions, employing Web 2.0 and social media technologies, developing engaging online content for the National Training and Education Resource learning platform, and improving existing energy education resources. DOE is also exploring the possibility of establishing an “Energy 101” course at colleges and universities nationwide.

It’s an exciting time to be working in energy. As the President has said, “…the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.” To realize global leadership and prosperity, Americans should better understand the invisible engine that powers all that we do – energy. The Department of Energy’s efforts to create a more energy literate citizenry is a key step toward that understanding and will ultimately help secure our energy future.