When I was growing up, energy education was pretty simple: "Turn out the lights when you leave the room."
Today, however, the energy space is incredibly complex, with new discoveries -- and new challenges -- arising almost every day. So we need a new, comprehensive kind of energy literacy to help all of us to make wise decisions about generating, using, and conserving energy -- today and in years to come.
We need to make sure the next generation of scientists and engineers is fully equipped to solve the energy challenges that face our nation and our world. Just as important, we need to make sure that everyone in our country -- scientists and laypersons alike -- understands why the United States needs new, practical sources of clean energy.
We also must educate the American public about the serious risks we face -- to our health, our environment, our economy and our national security -- if we fail to break our dependence on foreign oil.
The energy challenge we face is enormous. Each year, humans consume an average of 15 trillion watts of electricity and release over 30 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. Over the next four decades, worldwide energy use is expected to double.
The situation is far from hopeless. As the director of Argonne National Laboratory, where much of our work is focused on solving America's energy challenges, I am happy to report that scientists and engineers in the United States and around the world are making real progress toward the goal of providing plentiful, affordable electricity from sustainable sources.
But we still face great hurdles in our quest to achieve energy independence. Every known potential source of sustainable energy requires major innovations in science and technology. And every day that we continue to rely on foreign imports further saps our economy and endangers our environment. The need to solve our energy problems is great, and we have no time to lose.
At Argonne, we are working hard every day to discover and develop new, affordable, sustainable solutions to our nation's energy needs. As we pursue these discoveries, we are helping to educate new generations of students, from elementary school students all the way up to new Ph.D. students doing post-doctoral research. We also are working alongside teachers at every level to find new ways to improve science education in our country.
But our efforts can reach only a tiny slice of American students. So I am deeply encouraged by the National Science Foundation's recent "Workshop on Clean Energy Education," which brought together educators, government officials and industry representatives to find smart new answers to some tough questions: What is the best way to educate Americans about clean energy, and what must we do to make effective clean energy programs a vital part of our national educational system?
This task extends far beyond the classroom walls. We cannot expect our national leaders to craft strong, practical, consistent energy policies if those who elect them don't understand the critical role that energy plays in our economy, our environment, and our national security.
As scientists and as educators, we must make sure that everyone in America comprehends the promise -- and the complexities -- of clean energy. We need to help Americans connect the dots between their individual choices about energy use and our national energy consumption.
We need to speak clearly and confidently about the role that affordable, sustainable energy can play in revitalizing American manufacturing and supporting American global competitiveness.
We also need to underscore the potential of clean energy technology to create new jobs at the local level -- jobs that will require workers who are well-educated about energy, and who have the skills to master innovative new energy technologies.
To reach these goals, we must make energy literacy a fundamental component of American education. Students must learn how to assess the costs and benefits of various energy sources, and how to make energy decisions based on facts -- not dogma or urban legends.
Teachers need to find new ways to talk about the importance of energy conservation and efficiency -- without seeming preachy or partisan.
Schools must integrate thoughtful energy education throughout the curriculum -- not just in science class, but also in social studies, in economics, and in government and political science.
Without basic energy education, Americans can't hope to engage in fruitful national discussions about critical energy issues -- nuclear power, wind power, photovoltaics, natural gas, carbon capture and storage, transportation, conservation and grid modernization.
The National Science Foundation workshop represents an important step forward, but it's just a first step. Going forward, scientists and engineers must join forces with teachers, manufacturers, legislators and everyone else -- bridging disciplines, working across organizational boundaries and forging new partnerships. Together, we have to develop clear, concise, consistent messages about energy that will inform and strengthen our curricula -- from elementary school all the way through to postdoc programs.
By taking up the cause of clean energy education, the National Science Foundation has created an extraordinary opportunity to shape the minds of new generations of American students.
It won't be easy. We face big challenges, and we have a long way to go.
But if we can succeed in bringing factual, comprehensive -- and inspiring -- clean energy education to every student in America, the result will be a stronger, more prosperous, more resilient, healthier and safer nation, for generations to come.
Follow Eric D. Isaacs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/argonne