World Energy Systems

Anne Larson Hall, Christine Metzger, Robert Rhew, Martha Henderson and Glenn Richard
Emory University, Whittier College, University of California at Berkeley, The Evergreen State College and Stony Brook University


This is an idea for an interdisciplinary course examining energy systems, sustainability via multiple learning methods, including lecture, discussions, computer-based geospatial analysis, case studies, and field trips. Students will examine energy issues from a historical perspective on global, regional, and local scales. A capstone project integrates different disciplinary perspectives for a specific country. This idea was generated at the Teaching Energy Workshop.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Four Year College

Course Context:

This is an upper-level, cross-listed course, drawing majors from multiple departments in the natural and social sciences and the humanities.

Course Content:

This course begins with an introduction to the basic science of energy resources, including thermodynamics and traditional and alternative energy. The course continues via a module approach to introduce major thematic areas relevant to energy. Students investigate in-detail a specific country's energy system as a course-long project.

A list of module themes includes:
Human Culture: health, religion, art
Human Development: urbanization/sprawl, technology
Geopolitics: defense, economics, politics, energy security
Landuse: agriculture, food, nature resources
Ecology and restoration
Justice and sustainability

Course Goals:

Students will gain the ability to
  • learn the basic science of energy resources
  • compare traditional and alternative energy sources
  • place energy in social context
  • measure social equity
  • understand energy in geospatial and temporal contexts
  • investigate comparative regional identities
  • examine complex problems from multiple scales and disciplines

Course Features:

Guest speakers associated reading and writing assignments will be a regular part of the course to ensure that students are internalizing and synthesizing multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Students will participate in computer-based geospatial laboratory exercises that will explore relationships between energy and the modules in a geographic framework. Possible tools include Google Earth, ArcGIS, and spreadsheets.

Field trips will provide local context that will help students understand global issues and extrapolate to other regions.

In capstone project, students choose or are assigned a country during the first weeks of the course. As they progress through the modules, they synthesize and apply concepts learned in the course to their country of investigation. Students will produce a document with maps, figures, and tables presenting and analyzing their data and including measures of sustainability. Students will make an energy brief/fact sheet handout and will participate in a class World Energy Summit.

Course Philosophy:

Energy is best studied from an interdisciplinary perspective, and modules are designed to bring together the necessary and various viewpoints. The modular design also allows for individual personalization specific to a professor's background or interests.


  • Pre/Post-survey: Investigate students' knowledge of energy; contextual thinking; viewpoints on a particular problem
  • Guided lab discussion with graded outcomes
  • Test on basic science of energy, including types
  • Several short road checks to measure how well students synthesize information from multiple disciplines and on a variety of scales.
  • Writing assessment
  • Capstone presentation


References and Notes:

A variety of course-specific primary sources, from recent journals, magazines, and newspapers.