Grade Level: 9–12

ACF Lesson Plan: History of Coal in the U.S.


Students examine a timeline of coal mining in the United States and research the policies of coal-dependent companies.

Share [pdf]


Students will:

  1. familiarize themselves with key dates in the history of coal mining in the United States,
  2. research coal-dependent companies in the United States, and
  3. assess the effects that the coal industry has had on the economy of the United States, both directly and indirectly.

National Standards:

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Standards

  • Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Production, Distribution, and Consumption

Time Needed:

Two class periods with time in between for research


Discussion Questions:

  • When was coal discovered in the United States?

  • How was it first used?

  • What do you know about how coal was first mined?

  • What changes in the mining and use of coal have occurred in the past century?

  • Why is coal important to the United States?


  1. Prior to reviewing the Timeline of Coal and the lesson, open a discussion forming the foundation of student prior knowledge concerning the History of Coal. Continue a brainstorming discussion to help focus student learning leading to the lesson objectives. Chart these inquiry base questions on the K-W-L (What I Know/What I Want to Know/What I Learned) chart. Upon completion of the lesson, review with the students what they have learned about the History of Coal. Note: students can create an individual chart after which the teacher may compile the class’s ideas on a classroom K-W-L chart.

  2. Review the sequence of events listed on the Timeline of Coal in the United States, highlighting the various discoveries, inventions, and uses of coal over time. Explain to students that coal has been and continues to be important to the economy of the United States. Whether used to bake pottery, power steam engines, provide electricity, or produce steel, coal is an essential resource for our country.

  3. In this lesson, students will research three large corporations that have been or still are dependent upon coal in order to thrive, track how each company’s dependence upon coal has changed over the past fifty years, and consider how the use of coal has affected the economy of the United States.

  4. Ask students if they know what types of companies are dependent upon coal. Tell them that electric companies are the major consumers of coal, accounting for 80 percent of its use. Large industrial and manufacturing companies use coal for heating and powering plants. Historically, steel companies have been large consumers of coal, using coke (a substance made by heating coal to very high temperatures) to produce steel. Railroad companies that deliver coal are also dependent upon its production in order to sustain their business.

  5. Divide the class into three large groups. (Students can work in smaller teams of two or three students within a larger group to conduct their research.) Assign one group to research an electric company, another group to research a railroad company, and the last group to research a steel company. Each research team should answer the following questions:
      • When was the company founded?
      • How many people does it currently employ?
      • Approximately, how many people does the company provide services for?
      • How does it use coal?
      • Over the past fifty years, how has the company changed? Does it employ more or less people? Does it rely more or less upon coal?

  6. Provide students with the following companies and links to begin their research:

  7. After groups have completed their research, have them compile their findings to be presented in a PowerPoint presentation.

  8. Allow each group to present their PowerPoints to the class.

  9. As students present their PowerPoints, record the number of people employed by each company, as well as the number of people served by each company, on the blackboard or overhead projector. Add up the total employees and customers. Explain to the class that these companies are representatives of each industry, and that there are several more coal-dependent companies in the United States, employing and serving thousands of people. Ask students what they think would happen if the United States stopped mining coal. What would the chain of events be with regard to employment and services? How would this affect our economy?


Have students prepare an editorial about the role that coal has played and continues to play in the economy of the United States. Encourage students to focus on one particular industry and the role that coal plays in its production and growth. Students may choose to suggest alternatives to coal in order to sustain the industry, or they may support the increase in coal production to grow the industry, and, therefore, the economy.


Students may opt to use a different form of technology instead of the PowerPoint. Allow all students the freedom for final presentation (e. g. PowerPoint, news release, rap, commercial, etc.) rather than presenting a written report.

Share [pdf]