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Teaching about Energy

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions at the workshop, Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences, held in July 2012. Find examples of activities or courses for teaching about energy.
Teaching about energy offers abundant opportunities to incorporate sustainability themes into the classroom. Energy topics are a natural fit with related themes in sustainability such as climate change, water, human population and policy. Energy concepts span the geosciences, engineering and technology, economics, policy and more. Thus, teaching about energy can bridge societal issues, sustainability and the geosciences.

Where does energy fit into the curriculum?

Energy is a fundamental topic in many different types of courses, from physics to philosophy. Thus, there are many pathways to introduce both energy and sustainability themes into a wide range of contexts.

Some common topics include:

  • Occurrence of fossil fuels: the formation of coal, oil, and natural gas (geoscience)
  • Environmental impacts resulting from the extraction, use and spillage of various ores and fuels (environmental science)
  • Power vs. energy, thermodynamics, conservation of energy, conversion loss (physics)
  • Regulation, markets, incentives, industrial and market structures, taxation (economics)
  • The energy grid and complexities of transporting and converting energy into a usable form (engineering)

Energy and geoscience

  • Earth's energy balance
  • Occurrence of fossil fuels: the formation of coal, oil, and natural gas
  • The role of geologic structures in the trapping, storage and extraction of hydrocarbons
  • The processes of exploration, drilling and mining to extract fossil fuels
  • Occurrence and mining of uranium
  • Long-term storage of spent nuclear fuels or of compressed carbon dioxide
  • The hydrologic effects of dams on river systems
  • Feasibility of geothermal energy systems


Energy topics in environmental science
  • Understanding demand: how do we use energy? Why? How much?
  • Embodied energy: what is the "energy footprint" of a given item or practice?
  • Energy conservation and efficiency
  • Renewable vs. non-renewable energy sources
  • Environmental impacts resulting from the extraction, use and spillage of various ores and fuels
  • Analysis of alternative forms of energy, in terms of feasibility, sustainability and environmental impact


Energy topics taught in chemistry, physics and biology
  • Basic physics: power vs. energy, thermodynamics, conservation of energy, conversion loss
  • Forms of energy (kinetic, nuclear, thermal, etc.)
  • Transfer of energy across Earth systems
  • Wind energy and atmospheric dynamics
  • Return on energy investment - how much energy can be gained from various sources compared to the energy input required to extract it?
  • Exploring biofuels


Energy in the social sciences, economics and humanities
  • Externalities of various types, both priced and not priced (economics, geography; others)
  • Regulation, markets, incentives, industrial and market structures, taxation (economics)
  • Energy use over time; usage trends with respect to types of use, population, policy and culture
  • How societies are shaped, limited or expanded based on their access to energy
  • Energy and political conflict
  • Energy policy at various scales, from local to global
  • Economic analysis (cost/benefit) of alternatives
  • Analysis of risk and hazards associated with various energy sources (avoidance and mitigation)

Energy in engineering

  • The energy grid and complexities of transporting and converting energy into a usable form
  • Design of waster storage systems for long-term storage of radioactive wastes (engineering and geoscience)
  • Refining of fuels and ores (chemistry and engineering)
  • Improving efficiency of products, from cars to rooftops to lighting

Effective strategies for teaching about energy

Teaching energy can be a topic that is personal, local or global. Various teaching methods can suit each approach. For specific examples, see activities or courses for teaching about energy.


Opportunities to strengthen teaching about energy

  • Don't feel trapped in your own discipline, as energy is an interdisciplinary topic. Be aware of general ideas and talk about them.
  • Pursue faculty collaboration across the disciplines: some knowledge/skills are specialized and we need to work together.
  • Encourage student collaboration: students can teach one another (and us).
  • Link concrete examples of local or small-scale success stories with solutions on a larger scale. These are opportunities to talk about cumulative and systemic change.
  • Connect to business and entrepreneurship: design thinking, inspire innovation.
  • Ensure that alternatives are considered; discuss trade-offs / pros and cons.
  • Provide easy access to data on energy supply, sources, demand, trends and prices (such as the US Energy Information Administration)
  • Be aware of biases regarding types of energy and energy uses. Provide a range of sources to engage students coming from different perspectives.
  • Resources (e.g., books, teaching modules) written from interdisciplinary (non-disciplinary?) perspectives
    • Much of what is available is too specialized for more general and introductory audiences
  • Resources that start big, with fundamental 'truths' about energy system, then go deeper
    • a variety of types of materials (papers, teaching modules, videos, PowerPoints, opinion pieces [including different views, like McGraw-Hill/Dushkin series on Clashing Views...]) accessible/usable by instructors
  • Institutional workshops: connect people on a single campus to develop greater understanding and connections for teaching (for this and other sustainability-related topics)
  • Create opportunities for faculty to shadow/borrow from/learn from colleagues with specialized expertise in energy
  • Create a series of case studies that can be adopted by non-experts to inform their teaching on energy
  • Create a resource that offers topical overviews and linked resources (data sets, etc.) for instructors
  • Offer short immersion courses in related fields for faculty who are cross-training (economics, history, policy, engineering)