Teacher Resources

Deep geothermal energy connections to K-16 STEM education

When we change how we get energy, we change history. And, we change what must be learned and taught. For most of human history, heat came from burning wood. With the Industrial Revolution, we began to make heat and power by burning fossil fuels. Burning coal, oil, and natural gas has made our modern society. Now, they also endanger modern society.

The fires that provide most of our energy release ton after ton of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is an invisible gas that changes how the atmosphere works, and warms our climate. We need energy sources that either don’t release carbon or only release small amounts of carbon.

If humans are going to continue to thrive, we must stop most of the billions of fires burning around the world today. Deep geothermal heat has the potential to replace many of the fires used to heat buildings. Closely related processes can also cool buildings.

Understanding how carbon dioxide has changed the atmosphere and climate, understanding why these changes matter, and devising ways to change our energy sources require teaching and learning across numerous disciplines: physics, chemistry, Earth sciences, history, economics, geography, mathematics, engineering and technology. Communicating all of this requires language and the arts. This is an interdisciplinary project of the highest order.

Deep geothermal heat has the potential to directly warm our buildings and to drive machines that chill our buildings without adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Water pumped out of the earth is hot due to the rock from which it came, and its heat can be transferred to water that is circulated through buildings’ heating systems. Once cooled, the geothermal water can be recirculated deep below Earth’s surface, where it is reheated by the hot rock.  If the pumping is powered by solar and wind energy, the entire process can be run without releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This has huge implications for coming scientific, social, and economic changes. That means deep geothermal energy has important implications for teachers and students across the disciplines and the age span.

While the work of developing deep geothermal energy into usable heat for buildings is a highly interdisciplinary project, science is likely the first subject that comes to mind. There are many clear connections to the Scientific and Engineering Practices (SEPs) and Crosscutting Concepts (CCs) defined in The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Read through the SEPs and CCs in the table below and consider connections to the science and engineering behind the project.

Deep geothermal heat and the Next Generation Science Standards

Scientific and Engineering Practices for K-12 Science Classrooms

  1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Crosscutting Concepts

  1. Patterns
  2. Cause and effect
  3. Scale, proportion, and quantity
  4. Systems and system models
  5. Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation
  6. Structure and function
  7. Stability and change

The Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) and the Crosscutting Concepts (CCs) are two of the three dimensions described in The Next Generation Science Standards and A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Click the linked headings to take you to deeper explanations of SEPs and CCs. Explanations of the third dimension, Disciplinary Core Ideas.

Educational standards across the disciplines recognize the importance of teaching about complexity and the nature of complex systems. The use of deep geothermal heat must take into account interactions among rock, water, and heat in the subsurface, the use and distribution of heat in the community, the economic costs and savings of using deep geothermal heat, the network of stakeholders associated with extraction and use of the energy, changes in the generation of greenhouse gases, and much more. In sum, the generation of deep geothermal heat (like any energy development) requires an understanding of interactions among many systems — a system of systems. CUBO provides an opportunity to teach about such complex systems.

Note that not all of these systems involve just science. While changes to the energy we use always have roots in the sciences, they cannot be understood only through the lens of science, but also require understanding of social studies — economics, culture, and history, to name just a few.

Teacher resources: videos, workshops, lesson plans, and data

We are in the midst of developing resources for teaching about deep geothermal energy. Three videos describe the motivation for the project, introduce the research team, and introduce the rocks which hold the heat. An animation specific to the CUBO project overviews the technical specifics of the project. We continue to produce short videos, lab activities, and lesson plans, as the project progresses. Check back here for these resources.

We offer educator workshops on deep geothermal heat and will continue to expand these offerings as the project moves forward. We’re able to provide limited on-demand programming for districts, professional organizations, and other programs.

Upcoming workshop: Join us Sunday, November 7 at the Science Teachers Association of New York State for workshop E-41, “Can the heat beneath us help build a low carbon future? Introducing CUBO: The Cornell University Borehole Observatory.”

Description: Work is underway to answer the question in the session title. In Summer 2022, a two-mile deep hole will be drilled in Ithaca as part of the effort to make Cornell University carbon neutral by 2035, and to demonstrate that geothermal has the potential to replace fossils fuels to heat many New York communities. Learn about this cutting-edge and interdisciplinary project and associated educational resources.

Related climate and energy educational resources

The Paleontological Research Institution has extensive resources to support learning and teaching about climate and energy. The award-winning Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change, our, Changing Climate: Our Future, Our Choice museum exhibit with an online virtual companion exhibit, are part of the climate and energy education resource collection.