1.  Activate students' prior knowledge about the environmental effects of extracting energy resources.

Tell students that all electricity-generating sources have an effect on the environment. Ask:

  • What kinds of effects can the extraction and use of the energy resources have on the environment? (Resource extraction can affect air, water, and land resources. These resources can be contaminated [e.g., oil spills]. Resource extraction could make it impossible to use the land for other purposes [surface mining, drilling pads, windmills, solar panels]. Fossil fuel resources can pollute the atmosphere. [Burning of fossil fuels releases CO2 and methane is released during extraction of natural gas.] Disposing of waste can contaminate land and  groundwater.)

Let students know that in this activity they will explore the costs and benefits of using shale gas as an electricity-generating resource.


2. Discuss the role of uncertainty in the scientific process.

Tell students science is a process of learning how the world works and scientists do not know the “right” answers when they start to investigate a question. Show the Geologic Cross-Section of Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Marcellus Shale contains natural gas. Students can see examples of scientists' uncertainty in knowing how deep and how thick the shale layers are in some areas. Ask:

  • Is it possible to drill at the same depth to reach the Marcellus Shale? (No. The Marcellus Shale is buried at different depths, depending on the location. The Marcellus is deeper in Pennsylvania than it is in Ohio.)
  • How do you think scientists know where to drill to reach the shale layer? (Student answers will vary. One way to know where to drill is to drill many different test wells to figure out the shape of the underlying shale layer.)
  • Is it possible to know exactly how hydraulic fracturing will affect the layers? (No, it is not possible to know exactly how hydraulic fracturing will affect the layers. Scientists can predict how the layers might respond based on data from similar layers, but the geology can vary from location to location even in the same rock formation.)

Let students know they will be asked questions about the certainty of their predictions and they will need to think about what scientific data is available as they assess their certainty with their answers. Encourage students to discuss the scientific evidence with each other to better assess their level of certainty with their predictions.


3. Introduce and discuss the use of computational models.

Introduce the concept of computational models, and give students an example of a computational model they may have seen, such as forecasting the weather. The NOAA Weather Forecast Model provides a good example. Tell students scientists use models to predict the locations and quantity of natural gas deposits, as well as to determine how hydraulic fracturing will affect underground water supplies.


4. Have students launch the Evaluating Natural Gas interactive.

Provide students with the link to the Evaluating Natural Gas interactive. Divide students into groups of two or three, with two being the ideal grouping to allow students to share computer workstations. Tell students they will be working through a series of pages of models with questions related to the models. Ask them to work through the activity in their groups, discussing and responding to questions as they go.


NOTE: You can access the Answer Key for students' questions—and save students' data for online grading—through a free registration on the High-Adventure Science portal page.


Tell students this is Activity 4 of the What Are Our Energy Choices? lesson.


5. Discuss the issues.

After students have completed the activity, bring the groups back together and lead a discussion focusing on these questions:

  • Is there an advantage for natural gas over coal? (There could be an advantage for natural gas over coal. Natural gas emits fewer greenhouse gases when it is burned. But methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas, so if the natural gas well leaks, it could have no advantage over coal.)
  • How does drilling for natural gas affect the land? (Land in the area needs to be cleared for the drilling pad. There is a lot of impact on the land during the drilling process with all of the equipment that needs to be present. In addition, there typically are a lot of wells in any given drilling area. But after the wells are drilled and fractured, there is only a small drilling pad area left on the land. Most of the effects of natural gas drilling happen under the ground.)


For the next questions, show Model 3: Hydraulic Fracturing.

  • How can drilling for natural gas affect the aquifer? (Drilling for natural gas can affect the aquifer because water is needed to fracture the wells. The aquifer can be contaminated if there is a casing failure or if the water storage pool on the surface leaks.)
  • Is there a difference between using water and using propane to fracture the well? (A propane fractured well does not have the potential to contaminate the aquifer with leakage from the water storage pool.)
  • Can you predict when a leak will happen in the casing or in the water storage pool? (In this model, there is no way to predict when there will be a leak. In the real world, there are tests that can be run to determine if the casing will leak, but the tests are not 100 percent accurate; nothing can predict the future with absolute certainty.)

Informal Assessment

1. Check students' comprehension by asking them the following questions:

  • How can the water table be contaminated by shale gas extraction?
  • What precautions can be taken to prevent groundwater contamination?
  • What are some benefits of extracting shale gas for electricity generation?

 2. Use the answer key to check students' answers on embedded assessments

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Earth Science

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • explain how groundwater could be contaminated by the extraction of shale gas
  • describe some precautions that can be taken to prevent groundwater contamination during the extraction of shale gas
  • describe some benefits of using shale gas over coal for generating electricity

Teaching Approach

  • Learning-for-use

Teaching Methods

  • Discussions
  • Multimedia instruction
  • Self-paced learning
  • Visual instruction
  • Writing

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Science Education Standards

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy

ISTE Standards for Students (ISTE Standards*S)

  • Standard 3:  Research and Information Fluency
  • Standard 4:  Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making

Next Generation Science Standards

What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • Computers with Internet connection

Required Technology

  • Internet Access: Required
  • Tech Setup: 1 computer per learner, 1 computer per pair, 1 computer per small group, Interactive whiteboard, Projector

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer lab
  • Media Center/Library


  • Heterogeneous grouping
  • Homogeneous grouping
  • Large-group instruction
  • Small-group instruction
  • Small-group work

Background Information

The extraction of natural gas from shale has the potential to contaminate groundwater. The casings around the pipe could leak, releasing methane into the aquifer. The pool of waste fluid from hydraulic fracturing could leak, releasing contaminated water into the aquifer. Beyond the effects on groundwater quality, using water to hydraulically fracture natural gas wells could lead to a shortage of water, depending on the area’s climate. There are other negative environmental effects involved with extracting shale gas—from releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to releasing volatile organic compounds that can result in smog and poor air quality.


But there are also benefits to using natural gas for generating electricity. Natural gas is abundant and inexpensive, and it releases fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than burning coal. Extracting natural gas has less impact on human health than mining for coal or nuclear fuels. Each electricity-generating resource has environmental costs, and each has benefits.


Prior Knowledge

  • None



material on the outside of a substance, usually there to protect the material inside.

energy resource

source of energy found in nature that has not been subject to any human-induced energy transfers or transformations; for example, oil, coal, gas, wind, or sunlight.

hydraulic fracturing

process usually used to extract oil and natural gas in which rocks are fractured by injecting water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure. Also called fracking.


chemical compound that is the basic ingredient of natural gas.

model, computational

a mathematical model that requires extensive computational resources to study the behavior of a complex system by computer simulation.


type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.


type of sedimentary rock.

Articles & Profiles



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1220756. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.