Teaching about Energy using Quantitative Skills

Graph of world energy use
Quantitative reasoning is a natural partner for teaching energy topics. Many energy concepts are quantitative, such as rates of consumption and production, the costs of energy and comparisons of energy usage. Energy topics bring current relevance to learning quantitative skills, and using a quantitative approach is also an effective way to cut through political or emotional responses to energy topics.

Energy Consumption

Oil Demand and Consumption by Steve Iona, University of Denver
Using US Government data from the Energy Information Administration in the Department of Energy, students create models of future oil demand and predict the time frame when cumulative oil demand exceeds oil reserves.

Energy Consumption Rates across the USA and the World by Glenn Richard, Mineral Physics Institute, Stony Brook University
In this activity, undergraduate students learn to use Google Earth imagery, maps, graphs, spreadsheets, descriptive information, and statistics to compare energy and oil consumption rates between states in the United States and among various countries. They also use this information to explain these differences, as well as differences in categories of consumption, such as domestic, transportation, industrial, and commercial use.

Petroleum Use Jigsaw Activity/Homework by Wendy Calvin and Pat Cashman, University of Nevada - Reno
Students use online resources to estimate current consumption and production values now and in the future. The task is to estimate how long projected resources will last at current consumption rates. Students also examine the percentage of US demand that could be met by petroleum in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

ANWR Drilling Policy by William Prothero, University of California, Santa Barbara
This in-class activity provides students with some statistics on oil imports and consumption, along with projections for the amount of oil within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Students are asked to use basic mathematics to compare varying claims about the need for drilling in ANWR.

Evaluation of New Energy Supplies

Dam the Wilderness: Building "Green Hydropower" on Big Creek by Benjamin Crosby, Idaho State University
This group project is used in an upper-level geomorphology course and asks students to use various datasets to analyze a potential hydroelectric dam. Students consider stream flow rates, streambed characteristics, fish populations, water quality and climatic data to perform their analysis.

Natural Gas and the Marcellus Shale by Sid Halsor, Wilkes University
The strategy of this assignment is to lead students through a learning process in which concepts are introduced and followed by questions that require application of the concepts. Students consider the amount of gas to be extracted, the value of the gas, and the costs of deep-well drilling. Figures for the yield of the Marcellus Shale are compared to national consumption rates.

Evaluating the Effects of Local Energy Resource Development by Devin Castendyk, State University of New York, College at Oneonta
In this semester-long jigsaw project, students learn to use simple algebra and statistics to explore the effects of energy resource development on local water resources, economics and society. For example, some students perform simple water balance calculations, interpret local hydrostratigraphy, and compare dissolved concentrations to EPA Drinking Water Quality Guidelines. Other students will conduct research on the local economy and the costs and benefits of resource development. Still other students may perform a small survey of the campus to determine social attitudes for and against a proposed development.

Electrical Analysis of Wind Power by Lina Jiang and Philip Peterson
For this experiment, students use a DC motor as a generator and various shaped turbine designs to test which design produces the most electrical power. Using a fan to generate the "wind," students attach different blades made of folded paper or card stock to the motor to see how much power is generated.

Personal Energy Use

Where Does Your Energy Come From? Analyzing Your Energy Bill - by Mary Savina, Carleton College
Armed with utility bills (or conversations with relatives) and information from utility and government websites, students trace the sources of their electricity, heating and cooling, and other components of their energy use. Data on energy sources from different states and countries form the basis for discussions about energy sources, including their environmental, societal and economic advantages and disadvantages.

Cost Effectiveness of Increased Fuel Efficiency by Stuart Boersma, Central Washington University
Should one spend some extra money to increase the fuel efficiency of their automobile? When will high efficiency vehicles pay for themselves? In this activity students learn to analyze quantitative arguments, devise reasonable assumptions, analyze the effects of assumptions on costs and savings, and use linear and exponential models.

Porsche 911 Turbo vs Toyota Prius by Kevin Harrison, McDaniel College
Students make back-of-the-envelope calculations to estimate the amount of carbon dioxide released to the environment by different autos. The students also learn about exponential growth by calculating how the money saved by purchasing an inexpensive car can be invested to great advantage.

Environmental Footprint by Christina Gallup, University of Minnesota Duluth
In this homework/in-class activity, students take a web-based quiz that calculates their personal, the nation's, another developed country's, and an undeveloped country's environmental footprint. They add their results to a page on the class website and quantitatively analyze their results in small groups.

Carbon Footprint Exercise by Cinzia Cervato, Adam Sanford, and Karly Wortmann, Iowa State University
This is a three-step assignment for students in introductory geoscience that asks them to calculate their carbon footprint during one specific week. The goal of the assignment is to increase student awareness of the various sources of energy consumption and of the impact that each one of them is having on the atmospheric carbon budget.