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Infrastructure Unit

Ten Lessons for High School Students

Developed by Donald Hill, Lee Swenson, Ginger-Gleich Jackson, Samuel Lepler, and Molly Boesiger under the supervision of Stanford Global Projects Center Director and Professor Dr. Raymond Levitt, the following lessons can be used to introduce infrastructure in a high school history, government, or economics class. 

Inadequate and deteriorating infrastructure is an enormous problem in the United States. One contributor is that the American people do not know much about or seem to really care much about infrastructure. This reality is especially true for our youth. The Stanford Global Project Center engaged a Design Team of experienced high school teachers to develop a Ten Lesson Unit on Infrastructure to help teachers increase awareness and understanding of why infrastructure is important. We believe this knowledge is necessary for responsible citizenship. 

The Ten Lessons are designed primarily to serve as a resource for teachers of economics but individual lessons could be used by government and history teachers. Although infrastructure is rarely mentioned or taught in economics classes, it provides an excellent context for teaching a number of important concepts, including: 

  • Public-Private Partnerships
  • opportunity costs 
  • public goods cost/benefit analysis
  • externalities natural monopoly

The first two lessons provide an introduction to infrastructure and a foundation for the remaining lessons. Lessons Five and Six work well together but Lessons Three through Ten may be used alone. The Global Projects Center encourages high school teachers to take advantage of this free set of excellent lessons to nudge awareness and support for infrastructure investment among American youth and to increase economic understanding. 

The Infrastructure Unit includes the following ten topics: 

Lesson 1: What Does the California Water Project Tell Us About Public Works Infrastructures?

This one-day lesson begins with a brief examination of the 2012 “UCLA Water Main Break”. By focusing on a sudden and unexpected failure like this, students will begin to understand the many ways we are dependent upon our water infrastructure for basic human and social needs. After this brief introduction,  students will learn a definition of infrastructure.  For the remainder of the lesson, they will return to the UCLA water main break by examining how the California Water Project brings water from Northern California down to the houses and businesses in Los Angeles using dams, aqueducts, and municipal water systems. 

Lesson 2: What are the Key Types of Infrastructure in Our Community and the United States Today?

This one-day lesson both builds awareness of different types of infrastructure and challenges students to think about how infrastructure impacts their personal lives. Students should be able to do the following at the end of the lesson: Identify eight types of infrastructure and list two examples for each of these types. Describe at least one way how their personal lives are impacted by each of the eight types of infrastructure introduced. The goal of this lesson is to open students' eyes to the many kinds of infrastructure that impact their lives every day.

Lesson 3: Should Highways be Financed and Funded by Public-Private Partnerships?

This one-day lesson introduces the concept of public-private partnerships (P3s) and facilitates understanding surrounding the potential of P3s to contribute to the financing and funding of infrastructure needs. The lesson begins with a student activity that spotlights value conflicts involved with infrastructure financing and funding decisions and an assessment of P3s for infrastructure financing and funding. The lesson concludes with a case study that asks students to look at four different approaches to the financing and funding of a new, 25-mile highway section of highway and then make a recommendation for the one that best serves the public.

Lesson 4: Fire Protection - A Public Good Problem?

This one-day lesson uses the topic of fire protection to explore the ideas of public goods, free riding, and externalities. Fire protection is often provided by local governments and funded through county property taxes and other surcharges and fees. In rural areas, fire protection is sometimes funded through special fire protection district taxes or offered on an optional basis to residents of unprotected counties by nearby counties with organized fire protection programs.


Lesson 5: What Can We Learn About Natural Monopolies at Electricial Power Companies?

This one-day lesson is designed to introduce students to the economic concept of a natural monopoly in the context of infrastructure. The lesson introduces various natural monopolies in the infrastructure realm, but focuses primarily on the electrical grid and power companies. The class will follow a basic handout that introduces the key vocabulary, provides discussion questions, explains an interactive role play scenario, and follows up with a conclusion activity that involves utilizing the key vocabulary, analyzing the central problem caused by natural monopolies, and then potential solutions to those problems.

Lesson 6: Is Net Neutrality Free Speech or Monopoly Abuse? 

This one-day lesson taps into the infrastructure of communication, and specifically the internet, to explore the economic effects of Net Neutrality laws in the United States. Students will explore the economic concepts of monopolies, bundling, and anti-trust regulation as well as constitutional ideas such as freedom of speech to analyze the effects of altering or loosening net neutrality restrictions on normal consumers, infrastructure providers (Internet Service Providers in this case), large online sites like Google, Amazon, etc., smaller online retailers and the like.

Lesson 7: When Does it Make Sense to Use Public Funding for Sports Stadiums?

This one-day lesson delves into the topic of public financing for sports stadiums. Stadium construction projects are major economic undertakings, which last many years and whose costs and benefits are shared by both private parties (teams and owners) and public parties (local governments and the populations they serve). In the last several decades, we have seen the construction of many new stadiums for baseball teams, football teams, and a variety of other sports teams.


Lesson 8: Are Fuel Efficient Cars Destroying Our Roads?

This one-day lesson taps into the infrastructure of transportation in an attempt to address the growing funding crisis of roads given falling gas tax revenues in light of fuel efficient hybrids and electric vehicles. Students will study the economic concepts of public goods and externalities in the context of competing desires for both well maintained transportation infrastructure and encouraging environmental protection and stewardship. Students will explore different funding options and both the benefits and drawbacks of each method. 


Lesson 9: Is the California High-Speed Rail A Viable Solution to Environmental Pollution?

This one-day lesson is about making decisions in situations of uncertainty, looking at the California high speed rail project as a case study. The California project was proposed as part of a larger nationwide infrastructure plan for a high speed rail project similar to those in place in other countries. Construction on the California project has started although the final reach of the project is still being discussed. In this lesson, students will explore the economic concepts of externalities, future consequences, and costs and benefits to decide whether the California high speed rail project is a viable solution to environmental pollution in the state.

Lesson 10: Youth Decision Making

This one-day lesson will help American youth confront many tough decisions in their lives, both personal and political. This lesson provides a framework for approaching decision making that emphasizes the value of identifying pros and cons of different options and the difficulty of balancing short term and long term tradeoffs. The lesson begins by asking students to think critically about three decision choices that young people face. It then moves from the personal issues to issues related to infrastructure at the school and community level. Following the introductory activity on decision-making, there are two directions the class may take. 

The design, development, validation and publication of these infrastructure teaching modules was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, Grant #1334292, and the Global Projects Center at Stanford University. All opinions and conclusions expressed in this paper reflect the views of the author/s, and not necessarily the views of these sponsors.