Grade Level: 5 – 6

ACF Lesson Plan: Coal Supply and Demand


Students explore the relationship between supply and demand of natural resources.

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Students will:

  1. participate in a simulated exploration of natural resources, finding and recovering a single type of energy source; and
  2. understand the relationship between supply and demand of natural resources and how both conditions affect the cost of energy.

National Standards:

National Council for Social Studies Standards

  • Production, Distribution, and Consumption

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards

  • Numbers and Operations, 6-8
  • Data Analysis and Probability, 6-8

Time Needed:

One class period


  • Blackboard or overhead projector
  • Pencil and paper
  • Five different colors of beads or types of beans
      • 31 percent black (or black beans)
      • 27 percent white (or navy beans)
      • 19 percent blue (or kidney beans)
      • 13 percent green (or lentils)
      • 10 percent red (or rice)
  • Clock, timer, or stopwatch
  • Rice (if certain beads aren’t available)

Discussion Questions:

  • What is the largest source of energy in the United States?
  • What are other sources of energy?
  • Which do you think is the most expensive source of energy?
  • Which do you think is the least expensive? Why?


  1. Begin by using the discussion questions to elicit from students a list of natural energy resources. The list should include coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, and solar energies. If students come up with other sources of energy, combine those examples with solar in a group of alternate sources of energy. Ask students if they know which of these energy sources is the most plentiful, and which is the most expensive. Tell students that they will be participating in a mock exploration for natural energy resources that will illustrate the supply of each of those energies.

  2. Carefully hide groups of beans around the room before class.

  3. Divide the class into five exploration companies. Each of the companies is assigned a specific energy resource to recover:

    Company #1

    black beads or black beans = coal

    Company #2

    blue beads or kidney beans = oil

    Company #3

    white beads or navy beans = natural gas

    Company #4

    red beads or rice = nuclear

    Company #5

    green beads or lentils = renewable

    (Note: Do not tell students which type of energy source they are recovering, only what color bead or bean they are looking for.)

  4. Allow the exploration companies to search and recover their resources for one minute. After a minute, have each company count its resources. Record the totals for each group on the blackboard or overhead projector. Do more one-minute searches until all beans are found.

  5. Total the number of each energy source found from all three searches. Have each company work together to prepare a graph (bar, circle, line, etc.) illustrating the quantities of each resource recovered. After they have completed the graphs, have students calculate the percentages of each resource. This is done by dividing the number of each colored bead or bean recovered by the total number of beads/beans (100).

  6. Have each company display their graphs and share their calculations. Review the calculations to come up with accurate percentages. The totals should reflect the percentages listed in the materials section.

  7. Discuss as a class which energy sources were easier to collect. Why? Which were the most difficult to find? Why? Ask the students which energy source they think would be the most expensive. Why? What do they think happens to the price of energy sources as they become scarcer?

  8. Reveal to students the identities of the five resources. Tell them that the percentages they calculated represent the actual percentages of these available resources in the United States. Explain that given these findings it should be no surprise that coal is the least expensive and most abundant natural energy resource in the United States. Next is natural gas. Then comes oil, solar, and nuclear, in descending order of accessibility. Explain that while supply is one factor that dictates the cost of a resource, demand is another one. The higher the demand for something, the more a provider can charge for it. How do students think this phenomenon affects the energy industry in the United States? What areas of the country are more likely to use coal? What areas are more likely to use a different energy source? Why?


  • Have students explain the exercise and their findings to the class. Encourage them to discuss what other factors might dictate which energy sources are used by a community, such as environmental impact and the persuasion of special interest groups. What specific factors influence the choices of energy sources in your area? How have local energy costs changed over the past ten years?
  • Use a debate format to discuss factors that might dictate community decisions as stated above.


  • Encourage students to find out what energy sources are used in other countries. Direct them toward other coal-dependent countries (such as the United Kingdom and Germany), as well as countries that do not rely primarily upon coal for their energy (such as Sweden, France, and Japan). Challenge them to find out and compare the energy costs of other countries to that of the United States.
  • Continue with researching 10 years of costs/supply and demand and graph the changes over the 10-year period. Have students compare and contrast the outcomes between the different energy sources.

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