Hands-on Activity: Renew-a-Bead

Contributed by: Office of Educational Partnerships, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY

Three photos: Streaking vehicle lights illuminate a highway near a row of skyscrapers at dusk. A line of vehicles at gas pumps under an illuminated roof. The sun sets on a prairie, making a silhouette of a drilling rig.
Coal, oil and natural gas — which come from our depleting reserve of fossil fuels — provide more than 85% of all the energy consumed in the U.S. What happens when we have exhausted our fossil fuel reserves?
Copyright © Climate Watch Magazine, NOAA Climate Services http://www.climatewatch.noaa.gov/article/2009/carbon-dioxide-earths-hottest-topic


A quantitative illustration of how non-renewable resources are depleted while renewable resources continue to provide energy. Students remove beads (units of energy) from a bag (representing a country). A certain number of beads are removed from the bag each "year." At some point, no non-renewable beads remain. Student groups have different ratios of renewable and non-renewable energy beads. A comparison of the remaining beads and time when they ran out of energy shows the value of utilizing a greater proportion of renewable resources as a sustainable energy resources.

Engineering Connection

Engineers research, develop and design equipment that captures energy from renewable and fossil fuel resources for human use. Given the eventual depletion in fossil fuel resources, engineers are designing technologies that capture renewable energy resources in more efficient, reliable and economically competitive ways. The bag of beads used in this activity represents a physical model of our energy resources. Engineers use models of systems to help them understand systems and potential problems with systems.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence. Students should base their explanation on what they observed, and as they develop cognitive skills, they should be able to differentiate explanation from description--providing causes for effects and establishing relationships based on evidence and logical argument. This standard requires a subject matter knowledge base so the students can effectively conduct investigations, because developing explanations establishes connections between the content of science and the contexts within which students develop new knowledge. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations. Thinking critically about evidence includes deciding what evidence should be used and accounting for anomalous data. Specifically, students should be able to review data from a simple experiment, summarize the data, and form a logical argument about the cause-and-effect relationships in the experiment. Students should begin to state some explanations in terms of the relationship between two or more variables. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Use mathematics in all aspects of scientific inquiry. Mathematics is essential to asking and answering questions about the natural world. Mathematics can be used to ask questions; to gather, organize, and present data; and to structure convincing explanations. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Mathematics is important in all aspects of scientific inquiry. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Perfectly designed solutions do not exist. All technological solutions have trade-offs, such as safety, cost, efficiency, and appearance. Engineers often build in back-up systems to provide safety. Risk is part of living in a highly technological world. Reducing risk often results in new technology. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Technological solutions have intended benefits and unintended consequences. Some consequences can be predicted, others cannot. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Human activities also can induce hazards through resource acquisition, urban growth, land-use decisions, and waste disposal. Such activities can accelerate many natural changes. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Natural hazards can present personal and societal challenges because misidentifying the change or incorrectly estimating the rate and scale of change may result in either too little attention and significant human costs or too much cost for unneeded preventive measures. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Important personal and social decisions are made based on perceptions of benefits and risks. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Science influences society through its knowledge and world view. Scientific knowledge and the procedures used by scientists influence the way many individuals in society think about themselves, others, and the environment. The effect of science on society is neither entirely beneficial nor entirely detrimental. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Technology influences society through its products and processes. Technology influences the quality of life and the ways people act and interact. Technological changes are often accompanied by social, political, and economic changes that can be beneficial or detrimental to individuals and to society. Social needs, attitudes, and values influence the direction of technological development. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain why an increased dependence on renewable energy sources is an inevitable part of our future.
  • Describe how the depletion of fossil fuels is a serious global issue.

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • 1 paper bag containing 100 black and white beads, with black beads representing non-renewable energy resources and white beads representing renewable energy resources; the ratio of black to white beads varies by group

95 black beads and 5 white beads

90 black beads and 10 white beads

80 black beads and 20 white beads

70 black beads and 30 white beads


Two lines on a graph show US oil production and oil imports, 1920-2006. Oil production peaked in the 1970s and has been declining since. Other than a dip in the 1980s, oil imports continue to rise.
US oil production and imports show the concept of peak oil.
Copyright © Graph data from US Dept. of Energy EIA

Energy resources that are replenished at the same rate that we use them are defined as renewable energy resources. Solar, wind, geothermal and tidal energy are examples of renewable energy. Biomass can be renewable if we use the plant material at the same rate that it grows. If we chop down and burn all the trees in a short period though, that resource is not renewable.

Fossil fuels are also one form of solar energy because they were generated from biomass materials that existed millions of years ago. They are not renewable because we use them at a much faster rate than they are being regenerated.

In the 1960s, a petroleum geologist predicted that the US production of oil would decline shortly since most of the easily extracted oil was already pumped from the ground and they were not finding new oil resources in the U.S. Dr. Hubbert was right. U.S. oil production started to decline around 1970. Now, geologists and petroleum engineers predict a new peak in oil production, but this time it will be a global peak. It is important to have alternative energy resources available for our use so that when this new peak hits, we have the energy resources to keep the infrastructure of our society operating.

The goal of this activity is to use a model of an energy system to see how important renewable resources are so that our country (represented by the paper bag) does not run out of energy (represented by the beads).


Before class:

  • Count out the colored beads and put them into bags for each group.
  • Organize the rest of the materials for each group.
  • Make copies of the Student Worksheet, one per student.

With the students:

  1. Divide the class into groups of two students each. Distribute materials.
  2. Students should be able to follow instructions and complete the tasks. Make sure that they understand that the beads and bag are intended to represent a country and its energy resources (a model).
  3. Regroup and compare answers among different "countries." Discuss results (probably on Day 2):
  • What happened to the black beads? Relate this to the importance of renewable energy given that present reserves of fossil fuels will decline in the future.
  • Looking ahead: One possible solution to our current energy situation is the use of more renewable resources (now) rather than mostly non-renewable energy resources.
  • Also discuss that the renew-a bead activity is an example of scientific modeling. Talk about how modeling is used in your research or classes.
  • Review Fossil Fuel Graphing Homework as a class. This homework was assigned in the associated lesson Energy Resources and Systems.
  • Go over the graphs and results as a class.
  • Discuss the inevitable demand/ supply problem that we will face with fossil fuels because they are non-renewable.
  • Discuss uncertainties: We do not know when we will face these problems, but it will likely be in students' lifetimes.



Have students hand in tables of results and answers to discussion questions for teacher review.

Other Related Information

This activity was originally published by the Clarkson University K-12 Project Based Learning Partnership Program and may be accessed at http://www.clarkson.edu/highschool/k12/project/energysystems.html.


Susan Powers; Jan DeWaters; and a number of Clarkson and St. Lawrence University students in the K-12 Project Based Learning Partnership Program


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2008 Clarkson University

Supporting Program

Office of Educational Partnerships, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY


This activity was developed under National Science Foundation grant nos. DUE 0428127 and DGE 0338216. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.