Emily White, Research Associate, Center for the Study of Land, Air, and Water, Bard College
Despite the benefits of hydropower as a renewable source of energy, the use of dams is controversial. Negative environmental impacts, particularly for large hydropower systems, are of concern. However, the potential exists for systems that are designed to be ecologically sustainable. Smaller, decentralized, run-of-river systems that utilize new technologies (e.g., fish-friendly turbines) in preferential locations hold the most promise. The modification or removal of existing dams in certain locations can also result in ecological improvements (Maza, 2016).
Given the complexity of issues surrounding hydropower and the need for a system approach that considers the unique aspects of each dam, it is important that stakeholders be presented with as complete a picture as possible. Educational resources are needed to inform and engage communities and decision-makers. The topic of microhydropower also lends itself to problem-based learning (with the need to weigh pros and cons while considering multiple viewpoints) in introductory environmental science courses at the undergraduate and high school level. In addition, many of the associated concepts (e.g., renewable vs. non-renewable energy, potential and kinetic energy, turbines, water pressure and force) can be incorporated into K-12 science outreach activities for use with school and community groups.
Microhydropower Teaching Module
At the introductory college level, coverage of hydropower is typically associated with a discussion of the different types of renewable energy sources with a brief discussion of the benefits and problems. For example, the AP Environmental Science curriculum includes one unit (out of nine total units) on “Energy Resources and Consumption” that addresses “renewable and nonrenewable sources of energy, where they’re used, and their impact on the environment (College Board, 2021). We have designed a module which provides students with an introduction to renewable energy, map-based tools for exploring local energy sources and the feasibility of hydropower, an overview of dam-removal research, and preliminary steps for evaluating an existing dam as a potential candidate for a microhydropower installation. This module guides students through a series of activities leading up to a final open-ended exploration of the two small dams on Bard College’s campus. Students are tasked with identifying and evaluating the various ecological, social, and economic factors that should be considered to assess the possible options for these dams (i.e., dam removal, microhydropower, or no action). The case study can be modified to accommodate other dams, although some of the included resources are limited to sites in New York state. The module incorporates a variety of materials including short videos, articles from the popular media and scientific journals, online databases, and tools developed for Bard College’s microhydropower project.
A list of the module activities with a few selected resources is provided below. Complete details are available in a shared Google Doc (Microhydro Teaching Module). Further readings have been provided for advanced students to consider the additional complexity associated with the topics covered in some of the module’s activities. Relevant additional resources are also provided. Archived copies of all materials (including pdfs of websites) are available in a shared Google Drive folder (Microhydro Teaching). Direct links to the web-resources and archived materials have been provided in the module. Those planning to use these materials with students and/or community members and other stakeholders are encouraged to make modifications as needed. For examples, in some cases the activities can be completed independently while others may require a demonstration of how to navigate the online resources, for example. Use of the linked (and archived) materials should be properly attributed to the original source.
Teaching Module Activities:
Activity A: Renewable Energy Sources
Investigate and evaluate renewable energy sources through short videos and readings.
Activity B: Energy in Your Community
Learn where the energy in your state comes from and how it is used in your community.
Activity C: Hydropower
Learn the basics of hydropower and explore renewable energy potential to investigate the best locations for hydropower in the United States.
Activity D: Dams and Dam Removal
Examine the positive and negative aspects of dams by using map-based databases to find and investigate dams and dam removal projects.
Activity E: Microhydropower
Consider the advantages and disadvantages of microhydropower and learn how to estimate the power output at a potential microhydropower site.
Activity F: Assessing the Options to Make a Preliminary Recommendation
Identify the ecological, social, and economic factors that should be considered to assess the options for existing dams then synthesize and integrate the available information to make a preliminary recommendation.
Hydropower Science Outreach Activities (K-12)
To accompany the teaching module described above, we have compiled four activities that can be used in classrooms and public forums to raise awareness about microhydropower while also providing opportunities for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) outreach. There are a number of excellent lesson plans focusing on renewable energy and hydropower for K-12 students, including several fully developed curricular units. These include the American Association for the Advancement of Science ScienceNetLinks “Energy for You” lesson, the University of Colorado Boulder TeachEngineering “Renewable Energy: Water” unit, and the Foundation for Water & Energy Education “The Nature of Water Power” curriculum. The selected activities include a review of prior knowledge about energy and non-renewable versus renewable sources, a hands-on activity where water is dropped from different heights to demonstrate the conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy, an experiment to measure the rotational rate of a student designed and constructed model waterwheel, and an exploration of how water can be used to create electricity using a simple model of a dam built out a two-liter soda bottle.
Sources of Materials for Teaching Hydropower (K-12):
AAAS ScienceNetLinks “Energy For You” lesson (http://sciencenetlinks.com/lessons/energy-for-you/)
University of Colorado Boulder TeachEngineering “Renewable Energy: Water” Unit lessons and activities (https://www.teachengineering.org/curricularunits/view/cub-energy-renewable-water-unit)
Foundation for Water & Energy Education Curriculum “How is Flowing Water an Energy Source?” activities (https://fwee.org/education/the-nature-of-water-power/curriculum-units/)
A list of the included activities (with videos where available) is provided below. Complete details are available in a shared Google Doc (Microhydro Outreach Activities). Archived copies of all materials (including pdfs of websites) are available in a shared Google Drive folder (Microhydro Teaching). Direct links to the web-resources and archived materials have been provided in the module. Those planning to use these materials are encouraged to make modifications as needed for the intended audience. For additional content and context, including information about alignment with national and/or state science standards, teachers should consult the complete curricular materials provided by the creators of these activities. Use of the linked (and archived) materials should be properly attributed to these original sources.
K-12 Outreach Activities:
Outreach Activity 1: Renewable and Non-Renewable Energy Sources
Outreach Activity 2: Hydropower and the Energy of Falling Water
Outreach Activity 3: Waterwheel Work
Outreach Activity 4: Water Pressure and the Force of Water
College Board. (2021). AP Environmental Science. https://apstudents.collegeboard.org/courses/ap-environmental-science. Accessed 4 April 2021.
Maza, C. (2016, May 13). Hydropower’s next act: becoming a less-controversial renewable. The Christian Science Monitor. https://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy/2016/0513/Hydropower-s-next-act-becoming-a-less-controversial-renewable