If at some point this year, your child comes home from school, grabs a plastic bag and begins stuffing it with items found around the house, take note of the number. If it's exactly 10 items, you can probably breathe a sign of relief. Your little darling isn't running away. He or she is learning about the Marcellus Shale.
Same goes if you're asked to proofread a job cover letter authored by your eighth-grader and signed, "Sincerely, Natural Gas."
The first exercise is part of a new energy curriculum sponsored by the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, a trade group representing companies that drill for both shallow and unconventional oil and gas.
The second is from Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania's program for eighth-graders in the region. It's funded by donations from companies in the Marcellus Shale industry and uses their employees as volunteer teachers to explain common scientific concepts through the lens of oil and gas.
Both PIOGA and Junior Achievement programs talk about more than just the Marcellus Shale, which underlies most of Pennsylvania. They explain renewable energy and electricity conservation, for example, but there's a spotlight on oil and gas: how the resources are formed, how they're drilled and how almost everything -- from the products in the plastic bag to the bag itself -- flows from them.
School districts in Beaver County and the Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit have been eager to get these programs into classrooms.
The Blackhawk School District was among the first to pilot Junior Achievement's Careers in Energy Program, and is infusing other oil and gas references into its classes as well.
For example, incoming sixth-graders will begin learning about the history of oil and gas wells in social studies, superintendent Michelle Miller said.
Students at the high school's STEAM -- that's Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math -- lab will learn geomapping through the placement of natural gas wells. Others at the lab might use a computer program to survey a piece of land and determine where might be a good place to sink a gas well.
In 2011, the Blackhawk school district signed an oil and gas lease with Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corp., and while it's unclear when drilling will start, at some point students may get to see the process first hand.
"So much of what Marcellus Shale is is not looking at the jobs of today but looking at where is this going -- and producing kids who have critical thinking, teamwork skills," Ms. Miller said.
That's part of the industry's interest in sponsoring energy lessons, said Andrew Murphy, vice president of business development at Downtown-based EQT Corp. He was on the board of Junior Achievement when the idea of a specialized curriculum was first kicked around several years ago.
Oil and gas operators want to give back to the community, he said, and they also want to ensure a steady flow of future workers.
After a few pilots, Junior Achievement officially launched its energy curriculum in the spring. It reached 1,300 students and clocked 100 industry volunteers, some from Range Resources, EQT Corp., Talisman and Shell, which each contributed $25,000 as sponsors. Chesapeake Energy, which also provided volunteers, donated $5,000, while FTS International, a fracking contractor, gave $50,000.
Smaller companies that work as contractors for Marcellus operators -- law and engineering firm -- volunteered as well.
"A lot of companies have been very eager to get into the classroom," said Krista Wentworth, education program manager. "There's a skills gap and there's a lot of open jobs. So they want kids as young as eighth grade."
Teaching the teachers
"Energy was really not on anybody's radar screens until the last 10 years," said Susan Gove, CEO of the Mount Washington-based Gove Group Inc. that wrote the PIOGA curriculum. "It's not a subject that was integrated into schools."
The oil and gas association's curriculum is hot off the presses, and the Gove Group is just starting to reach out to school districts to entice teachers into workshops where the educators can go through the lesson plans and figure out which state standards they satisfy. The first workshop is set for Oct. 14.
Ms. Gove envisions teachers supplementing some current lesson plans with PIOGA's offerings. The concepts should be relatable not just to science students but also in social studies class, or language arts, she said.
Take the cookie mine experiment.
Students -- supplied with a chocolate chip cookie, a toothpick and a paper clip -- are asked to extract the chocolate chips to simulate mining. A math class could map how many chips came out using each instrument. A language class would write an essay on the post-extraction cookie, drawing parallels to what happens to the earth when humans pull out its fuels.
PIOGA wanted Ms. Gove to include all forms of energy, Ms. Gove said, and the curriculum isn't designed to push an agenda.
"I don't really get involved in the politics of it," she said.
"Do I know if there's really global warming or not? Do I know if fracking is good or not? No. But I can present as many facts as possible."
The Marcellus Shale Coalition also wants to host teachers looking for insight into the industry, and it plans to seek state certification as a provider of the continuing education credits required for teachers in Pennsylvania.
"The teachers who are going to talk about what's happening in the Marcellus, it's important for them to come and see that part of it," said Susan Oliver, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma-based WPX Energy who is heading the coalition's effort to get certified as an education provider.
"I can see easily how a geology class would love to come out and meet with a geologist and see the [drill] cuttings and see how we measure our depth. There's basics of physics and science and math that's involved, even technology -- to bring technology teachers out and show them how do we know where that drill bit is when it's underground."
Neither Ms. Oliver nor any of the school administrators, teachers, or organizations interviewed had encountered any push-back on having industry-sponsored curricula in the classroom.
"It's not any different than when industry gets involved in the science fairs or sponsoring different events around town," Ms. Oliver said. "It's not brainwashing, it's a learning experience. We're going to focus on science and facts, and we're not going to focus on innuendos and stories."
Alternate energy education
Environmental groups have tried their hand at Marcellus lessons, too, with funding from the Department of Environmental Protection.
The Audubon Society's "Shale We or Shale We Not" three-day teacher training reached more than two dozen educators in 2011 and an abridged version was offered the following year, albeit with fewer takers. Teachers who participated got continuing education credits.
RiverQuest just completed a two-year run of its "Exploring the Marcellus" program in July. "It's the who, what, and why of Marcellus Shale," said Janine Surmick, outreach educator, who estimated the program reached about 8,000 students, third grade and older, and adults in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The organization is now developing a more general energy curriculum.
The Shale Academy, a spinoff from the marketing company Shale Media Group in Washington County, launched this spring and is seeking corporate sponsors to bring natural gas education programs to school students between kindergarten and college.
Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus has hosted workshops for school administrators, faculty and curriculum developers about incorporating gas concepts into their programs: "In a math class, instead of saying, 'You go to the grocery store and this item costs this much,' say, 'You go out to the field and gas costs this much,'" suggested Joe Segilia, director of outreach.
"I think we're beginning to lay a foundation for teachers so they know this is the place to come to learn about gas industry and coal industry," Mr. Segilia said. The Penn State Extension branch is in the process of setting up a Marcellus Shale advisory board.
Some in Pennsylvania are also interested in pursuing a model popularized in Ohio. Established in 1998, Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program does teacher training and education around the science and benefits of oil and natural gas. Gas producers volunteer to belong and donate one cent for each thousand cubic feet of gas they produce. Oil producers donate 5 cents per barrel.
Paula Cosnek, an eighth-grade science teacher Hopewell Memorial Junior High School, has been teaching a unit on energy for 13 years. She considers herself a strong environmentalist and knew about Junior Achievement since her father was involved with the organization. She was apprehensive about Marcellus Shale development when she started teaching the Careers in Energy curriculum in the spring.
"It allayed my fears," Ms. Cosnek said.
The curriculum does a good job balancing both sides of the shale gas debate, she said, and the geologist who guest lectured assured her of the environmental protections in place, although she still has concerns about enforcement and the responsibility of contractors in the field.
The last of seven lessons in the Junior Achievement program sets up a mock town hall meeting to debate whether shale gas drilling should be allowed within its borders.
Five students are given speaker profiles -- there's a farmer, a pharmacist, a small business owner, a company representative and an environmental regulator -- and they present their cases to the rest of the class, which then votes. Something similar went on in Hopewell Township in 2011 and 2012 when its board of supervisors considered ordinances to first restrict then loosen the burden on natural gas development.
In Ms. Cosnek's classes, a total of 110 votes were cast. "Would you believe they were tied?" she said.
The split landed right down the middle, and while the curriculum suggests the teacher could break the tie, Ms. Cosnek decided she didn't want to do that.
"I wanted them to examine the evidence and really come up with their own ideas," she said.
Anya Litvak: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1455