Target Grade Level / Age Range: 

7-8th grade


45-60 minutes

Virtual Learning:

Use this document to convert the lesson into a virtual learning module for your students. Use the steps outlined to create the different elements of a Google Classroom or other online learning platform. You can also send the steps directly to students in a PDF, present them in a virtual meeting, or plug them into any other virtual learning module system. 


Introduce students to biodiesel, ethanol, and biomass in terms of agricultural and societal importance, while strengthening students’ research and technical writing skills.


  • Writing utensils
  • Computers, laptops, or tablets
  • Internet Access
  • Renewable Fuels Fact Finder.docx
  • Renewable Fuels Fact Finder – Answer Key.docx

Suggested Companion Resources (books and websites)

Vocabulary (with definitions) 

  • ethanol – Renewable fuel made by fermenting sugars with yeast. It is commonly made from corn, sugar cane, and other plants with a high starch or sugar content. Ethanol is a type of alcohol and is highly flammable.
  • ethyl alcohol – Also called ethanol.
  • biodiesel – Renewable fuel similar to diesel derived from vegetable sources.
  • biofuel – Any fuel composed of biological raw material that is renewable.
  • biomass – Organic matter that can be used as an energy source.
  • renewable energy – Energy from a source that is not depleted when used, such as wind or solar power. 

Background – Agricultural Connections (what would a teacher need to know to be able to teach this content) 

  • This lesson begins with students working in groups to find answers to basic renewable fuels questions. The questions and answers are outlined in the attached documents. Here is a broader overview of the answers:
    • Biodiesel is a diesel fuel made from a renewable resource. Here in Iowa, we use soybeans to make soy biodiesel. Most school buses run on soy biodiesel. This fuel burns cleaner than traditional diesel, and adds value to soybeans, as it creates another use for the crop. In creating soy biodiesel, it is only the soybean that is used, not the pods or whole plant. The soy biodiesel process does create byproducts, such as soy meal, which can be used for animal feed. This creates another opportunity for revenue for the soybean farmer, and creates a cheaper, nutritious, feed alternative for livestock farmers.
    • Ethanol is simply the chemical name for ethyl alcohol. Essentially, this is grain alcohol, not unlike moonshine. However, when made for fuel purposes, it must be blended with gasoline before leaving the plant, so it cannot be sold as a food-grade product. The percentage that the pure ethanol gets mixed with the gasoline is called the blend. This is where we get names like E-85 and E-15. The most common here in Iowa is E-15. This is made from the starches in the corn kernel. There are byproducts from ethanol, including DDGs, or dried distiller’s grains. These can also be used as a nutritional, cheaper feedstuff for livestock.
    • Cellulosic ethanol is also ethanol, but it is instead made from the cellulose of the plant. This means that all of the plant material, including stems, stalks, and leaves, can be used to create fuel. This process has not yet become very popular, but it holds promise. Where there are cellulosic ethanol plants, farmers may bale the leftover corn stover in their field after harvest to sell to these plants. There has also been research into a variety of other crops, including giant miscanthus, that create a large amount of plant matter with very little inputs.
    • After students answer these questions, there will be a discussion about societal and environmental impact.
      • When discussing societal impact, it will be important to discuss economic impact. Talk with students about what happens when people in the community make more money, or about what happens when factories or industries come to a new community. While it will be easiest to discuss these ideas in an abstract way, encourage students to look up statistics to support these claims in their research papers.
        • A particularly good resource in finding agricultural statistics is the National Agriculture Statistics Service. Their online database can be found through
      • When talking about environmental impact, use the sustainability lens. Think of sustainability like a triangle. The points of the triangle represent environment, society, and economics. The benefit of looking at sustainability like this is that it is more realistic. In general, people tend to think about sustainability just as environmental. While this is an important piece, it is not the only thing to think about, however. For instance, if a farm focused only on environmental sustainability and ignored economics and societal needs, their product could be rejected by society, and they might not be able to sell what they need to cover costs on the operation. Keeping this in mind, it is important to try to balance the three sides of sustainability to help create a realistic and mutually beneficial business plan. 

Interest Approach or Motivator

Get students to start talking about their vehicles and what they put in them for fuel.  Let them discuss their opinions and ideas without any criticism or comment.  After they have given their ideas ask “Is it better to use soy diesel and/or ethanol and why/why not?”


  1. Ask students what ethanol and biodiesel are. Take a few ideas from the class. Then, ask students if they are good or bad, and why they think so.
  2. Tell students that today they will be working in small groups to find answers to some basic questions about renewable fuels. Afterward, we will recap as a class, and then they will use this information to guide them in a research project.
  3. Split students into small groups of two or three. Hand out the attached Fact Finder worksheet to each student.
    1. Tell the students that the worksheet has many questions on it, and it is their job to find the answers to them with their partner. Explain that time given to research will be limited, so they will need to focus their internet time to get the most out of it as possible.
    2. If necessary, talk about credible sources, and how to identify if a source can be trusted.
  4. Give the students about 20 minutes to research on the internet to find the answers for these questions—using the list of websites given, but allowing them to find other good sources of information too.
  5. Once the 20 minutes are up, bring the class back together as a whole group. Go through each of the answers one by one. Give students the opportunity to add to or change incorrect answers, as well as ask clarifying questions.
  6. With the remaining time, discuss what the answers they found mean. Did they change their original opinion on whether renewable fuels are good or bad? What kinds of impacts do they think these industries would have on our country? Iowa? Their county or community?
    1. When discussing local impact, talk about how multiple uses for a crop adds value to the crop, therefore helping farmers (local businessmen and women) make more money. These multiple uses can also add industries and jobs, which also adds revenue to communities. With this added revenue, citizens can put their money back into the community, helping it thrive.
    2. Also discuss environmental impact during this time. Do renewable or nonrenewable energy forms have more of an impact? Do renewable fuels have an environmental impact?
      1. This could be a time to talk about modern technologies that help to continuously reduce the environmental impact of production agriculture.
      2. Use this time to also discuss the three-pronged approach to sustainability that includes economic, social, and environmental sustainability.
  7. After discussing local and environmental impacts, explain to students that their assignment due next week will be to write a research paper outlining renewable fuels. Tell students that the instructions for the paper are on the last page of their Fact Finder packet, but go through it with them as a class.
    1. Students will need to write a two-page research paper with a works cited page outlining renewable fuels. They will need to discuss terms, crops, processes, and impacts of renewable fuels.
    2. Tell students that though there will be an opportunity to discuss some of their opinions in the paper, the majority of the content will need to be fact-based and cited correctly in order to get credit.

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Did You Know? (Ag Facts)

  • Iowa leads the nation in ethanol production, with 47 percent (1.3 billion bushels) of the corn grown in Iowa going to create nearly 30 percent of all American ethanol.
  • Iowa’s 42 ethanol plants are expected to use approximately 1.3 billion bushels of corn, which will produce well over 3.9 billion gallons of renewable ethanol fuel and 9.37 million U.S. tons of the livestock feed, distillers dried grains (DDGs).
  • Production has increased from about 25 million gallons in the early 2000s to about 2.1 billion gallons advanced biofuel in 2015.

Extension Activities (how students can carry this beyond the classroom)

  • Study the chemical processes of creating fuel
  • Create a similar research project on the differences and similarities between wind and solar energy
  • Tour either a nearby renewable energy plant
  • IALF Energy lessons (


Author(s) (your name)

  • Anita Fisher       

Organization Affiliation (your organization)

West Bend-Mallard High School 

National Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • Science, Technology, Engineering & Math:
    • T4.9-12e. Identify current and emerging scientific discoveries and technologies and their possible use in agriculture (e.g., biotechnology, bio-chemical, mechanical, etc.)
    • T4.9-12g. Provide examples of how processing adds value to agricultural goods and fosters economic growth both locally and globally

Iowa Core Standards

  • Science:
    • HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
    • HS-ESS3-4. Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
  • Language Arts:
    • W.7.1, W.8.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
    • W.7.2., W.8.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content
    • W.7.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation.
    • W.8.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
    • W.7.8, W.8.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source ; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

Creative Commons License

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