The 'game' is energy - or is it 'hucksterism'?
Everett, Mass. — Maria Rizzo is a dark-haired senior in Louis Baldi's ecomonics class at Everett High School. Her father is a hairdresser; her mother is a seamstress. On Nov. 23 she assumed a new identity: the role of Sen. Thomas Corrigan in an innovative educational program called ''The Energy Hearings.''
For seven weeks Maria and 29 classmates conducted a simulated Senate hearing, a learning game designed to teach students about coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear , and solar energy. Maria was one of 16 students playing the role of eight senators (alternating two-member teams) whose task it was to write a national energy bill; the rest of the class were energy executives who testified before the Senate committee in hopes of gaining favorable legislation.
Each student prepares by studying a set of booklets explaining the history and current uses of the various resources.
They are written in a biased manner so that salient arguments are obvious. Antagonistic letters to the editor at the end of each booklet point out the drawbacks. An ''Overview'' booklet keeps everything in a general framework with profiles of the senators, an agenda for the hearings, a general bibliography, and a glossary.
Since the hearings go on for several weeks, all students learn both sides of the arguments regarding use of coal, oil, nuclear, natural gas, and solar energy.
One of the best aspects of the hearings, explains Mr. Baldi, is the healthy competition between groups which motivates students to do outside research and think carefully. They interview their parents, use the school science department, and write to oil, gas, and coal companies for information.
As one Everett student, who played the part of an energy executive, admitted, ''Nobody wants to look like a fool when you're being questioned by the senators.''
This program was designed by the Cabot Corporation, an international oil and gas distribution company whose sales reached $1.2 billion last year. Cabot created ''The Energy Hearings'' to counter ''hasty and ignorant decisions about energy'' according to Stephen Gens, a company offical.
While economics teacher Louis Baldi believes the hearings were a success, the game raises the question of who should supply schools with information on energy - particularly nuclear energy.
The Department of Energy (DOE), once a big supplier of information, has been pruned from $5 to $1.7 million in educational funds - formerly $1 million a year went toward information packets for teachers; the rest was channeled to development grants and state energy education programs, said a DOE official in a phone interview.
But DOE publications have been recalled and are undergoing an evaluation that as of this writing has lasted a full year. Thus, private companies with reams of free information find that schools that need and want energy information are willing to turn to them.
But, should big business enter the classroom? The answer appears to depend on whom you talk to.
''Corporate materials are absolutely inappropriate for the classroom,'' says Sheila Harty, spokeswoman for Ralph Nader and author of ''Hucksters in the Classroom.'' According to Harty, energy companies distribute free information for image building, tax deductions, market expansion, and for smoothing community relations.
Industry insists, however, that their motives are altruistic and their materials are objective. ''A real need exists for young people to develop analytical skills for dealing with the energy issue and other relevant matters of the 1980s,'' says John Cabot, senior vice-president of Cabot's energy group.
As he explains, the material for the hearings were written by an outside research/writing team which included college students. I consider it ''very objective,'' reports economics teacher Louis Baldi.
At Everett High, a working-class school with 1,800 students, ''The Energy Hearings'' stir excitement on a Monday morning. In the school recording studio, a tight audience leans forward to hear five students in v-neck sweaters (''energy executives'') make final arguments in favor of coal, oil, solar, nuclear, and natural gas.
When they finish, ''Senator Corrigan'' clears her throat and reads the bill: ''We the members of the Senate Select Committee on Energy advocate the use of. . . .''
The bill calls for large capital investment in solar energy (''the most abundant, inexpensive, and cleanest energy source'') to be supplemented with natural gas. Nuclear energy ranks low (''too costly, too perilous. . .etc.''), as does coal.
''There's a hype against nuclear energy!'' exclaims nuclear executive, Paul Ventullo, who polled the class and discovered 95 percent of the students were indeed anti-nuke.
But like most Senate bills, the final version included something for everyone , Maria Rizzo explained.