CREATIVE DISCOVERY by Patricia Newman, award-winning author of picture books and nonfiction books

In school, we often ask students to work together in groups solving a shared problem or creating a project in which each team member contributes to the outcome. Similarly, in the study of alternative energy scientists around the globe form cooperating groups that pose experimental methodologies and ask hard questions in the race to find affordable, deliverable solutions to fossil fuels.

Caring about the environment is not just good for the planet; it is good for creative discovery, too. During the research process for my two newest books, Energy Lab: Biofuels and Energy Lab: Water Power (grades 4-8), I interviewed scientists, volunteers, academics, and business leaders all over the country who study how to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. Additional research introduced me to wave energy studies in Scotland, the way France extracts energy from tides, Brazil’s ethanol-producing sugar cane
industry, and a company exploring the heat from the ocean’s thermal vents as possible sources of electricity.

So in the spirit of team learning, I offer two group activities for your students that will not only foster an awareness of our environment and a desire to protect it, but a new-found understanding of what they can bring to the conversation:

  1. Renewable energy is about connecting systems–using the waste of one process to fuel another: for example, a dairy farm that recycles manure to make electricity. Discuss other  connected systems. Is there one in your school or town? How does it work? What type of renewable energy does it provide? Create a poster showing the relationship between the energy systems.
  2. Construct a waterwheel (Use this possible model or your own design. Younger students may use a teacher-built model for the experiments). Position the waterwheel in a sink or kiddie pool with a running hose. Move the wheel around to find the best energy output. Experiment with the amount of weight that can be lifted using the power of water. Extend the activity for older students by producing enough electricity to light a light bulb.

As a former teacher and now as an author, I find the teamwork that surrounds alternative energy research exciting. Common goals lead to partnerships and friendships, which lead to shared experiences, which could ultimately benefit humankind as much as our planet. I hope you will give me the chance to share with your students the exciting places writing has taken me!

Patricia Newman is the author of several books for children, including Jingle the Brass, a Junior Library Guild Selection and a Smithsonian-recommended book; and Nugget on the Flight Deck, a California Reading Association Eureka! Silver Honor Book for Nonfiction. Visit her at



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