During the week of June 15, 2009, an estimated 3,500 high school students from across the U.S. debated the politics, challenges, advantages, and science of federal incentives for alternative energy at the National Forensic League (NFL) National Speech and Debate Tournament in Birmingham, Alabama. Students who participated in the national tournament had to win district tournaments in their respective states in order to advance to the national competition. This year’s national topic was, “Resolved: That the United States federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States.”
“The National Forensic League is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit educational honor society established to encourage and motivate high school students to participate in and become proficient in the forensic arts: debate, public speaking, and interpretation,” according to the NFL website. Since its inception in 1925, the NFL has enrolled over 1 million high school students as members in all 50 states.
For the entire 2008 school year, high school students in every state in the U.S. have been debating the environmental, political, and financial harms of the United State’s current dependence on oil for energy. They have spent countless hours studying alternative energy sources such as Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), wind energy, photovoltaic cells, and biofuels, ranging from ethanol, to those based on cooking oil, to those produced from algae. Students also debated the potential environmental impacts of alternative energy technologies such as noise created by wind turbines, required land mass availability for biofuel production, possible bird strikes in wind turbines, the potential inadequacy of the present power grid to support any alternative energy technology, and the impact of energy producing technologies in the world’s oceans.
The students also studied the realities of private industry’s ability to market alternative energy technologies and the profit motives that guide business. To be competitive, students not only needed to understand alternative energy funding, environmental concerns about oil dependence, and the science of alternative energy technologies, they also had to be able to defend both sides of the resolution. Students are randomly assigned to either argue the affirmative or negative side of the resolution at the beginning of each debate round. The most competitive debaters were those who not only developed a plan for an alternative energy incentive that was affordable and that could be a feasible solution for a sustained U.S. energy policy, but who could also articulate a logical argument why that same plan would not solve the harms and inherent barriers they claimed led to the solutions and benefits they argued for in their last debate round.
The amount of work necessary for debaters to be successful is astounding. Students often begin in the summer preparing for the upcoming debate season. They often study, give practice speeches, prepare cross examination questions, and develop their sizable files of reference cards from leading experts on the environment, fiscal policy, and alternative energy technologies late into the night. The alternative energy incentives resolution was debated in what the NFL refers to as “policy” or “team” debate.
The teams consist of two high school students and have the following format. Each of the four speakers has eight minutes to speak about the resolution. In between each of these speeches, a student from the opposing team questions the speaker for three minutes. After all four students have spoken and been cross examined, each student gives a four minute rebuttal speech. Each team has a total of only five minutes of prep time to use during the entire round! The amount of preparation is obvious when the students enter the room with their portable plastic filing cabinets, often stacked three high and filled with evidence to support or refute any argument presented during the round.
Almost every Saturday from September through March, students get up at 5 a.m., wearing suits and dresses, board buses for that week’s tournament, wheel their cases of evidence into the host school, and debate at least four rounds of about 90 minutes each, followed by a well-deserved awards ceremony, and the chance to continue to the national tournament. The pressure to win the district and state tournaments is tremendous, during which students debate Friday night for three hours and then debate all day Saturday in a dual-elimination format until the final winning team is decided.
Students learn the value of teamwork, respect for the opinions of others, and the value of working toward a goal, all within an atmosphere of enjoyment in which student competitors play video games between rounds, talk about their schools, and revel in the company of friends who they may have just debated or may debate in the next hour.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Brittain, who has been the Debate Coach at Columbia City High School in Columbia City, Indiana, for 39 years. During our discussion, Brittain repeatedly stressed the timeliness of this year’s resolution. He said that, “Students studied science, economics, and Americans’ attitudes about energy with this topic. It was much harder for students to separate fact from opinion with this topic in comparison to previous years’ topics because of the number of blogs and websites from sources that were biased.” But he also stressed the value to students in learning how to differentiate between credible references and those based on opinion or non-scientific and anecdotal evidence. Students also learned about the integral role that universities play in research and development of alternative energy technologies and policies. And, according to Brittain, “Students developed a great deal of respect for science in general.”
Students gained an understanding of the complexity of energy production and the role it has in the economy. They also garnered an appreciation of the significance of seed money for energy research to solve social problems. The learning didn’t stop when debate rounds ended, however, as students asked questions and led discussions in their classes in history, science, and English.
When I asked Brittain about how interested the students were in the topic, he said this year’s topic really hit home for many students. “The topic was an easy sell for student debaters. We were fresh off $4 a gallon gasoline prices which caught the attention of high school students who were just getting their driver’s licenses!”