Teaching life cycle assessment using biofuels to develop process thinking and strengthen core science understanding
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This action research project focuses on teaching life cycle assessment to engineering students in high school, using biofuels as a relevant application. The study examined the effectiveness of teaching methods related to both the engineering content—life cycle assessment—and the science content—biofuel production. It also examined underlying conceptions that students have about the preferability of some common consumer products from an environmental perspective, as well as their knowledge of ethanol compared to gasoline. The participants in the study consisted of sixteen college students enrolled in an Engineering Energy Systems course while pursuing either an undergraduate or graduate degree related to teaching engineering and science at the secondary level. The students participated in lessons written for a high school engineering science course currently under development in the UTeach Engineering program at The University of Texas at Austin. Data were collected from a pre- and post-unit assessment, observation of student activities and behaviors, and a participant survey. The results of the study suggest that student understanding of the environmental implications of products or processes is deeper after completion of the unit. The study also shows a positive relationship between hands-on sense-building activities and student engagement. As an action research project, the primary goal is the immediate improvement of teaching to increase learning in the classroom. Modifications to the unit and lesson design have been made based on the results of the study in preparation for using the unit with high school students in the following school year.