Incorporating Energy Concepts Introductory Geoscience Courses

Courses represented: Physical Geology; Historical Geology; Physics; Earth Science/Earth Science for Teachers; Environmental Geology

Group Members: Mamadou Keita; Jim Staub; Dale Easley; Kathy Ellis; Dick Enright; Tim Lutz; Robert Meeks

Our Goals: We need to fit energy ideas into a fairly standard introductory geology course. The main idea is to hit on energy concepts via five activities during the semester. We also want to involve students as stake holders while modeling excellent teaching methods for potential pre-service teachers.

Pedagogical Principles

  • Rule of Five (Tim Slater's talk)
  • Embedded focus on energy
  • Science, Technology and Society

Units: The Sun| Stream Flow |Sedimentary Rocks |Earthquakes |Cumulative Project


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as a primary energy resource for the planet: earth systems, hydrology, wind, hydroelectric, photovoltaic, energy transformation and storage, light energy to electrical, mechanical to electrical. How is the power of the earth system used to power human tools and technology?

Resources and activities for basics of energy transformations:

Goal: Each group of students should construct a functioning electric motor and a simple engine.

Learning outcomes: Students will be able to
1) identify major components of electric motors and simple engines
2) explain the relationship between electricity, magnetism, heat, volume, and kinetic energy.


1) Because the construction of an electric motor is simple and quick, we will construct one first. We will then explain the relationship between electric motors and generators.

2) We will then construct a simple engine to show how heat can be used to power the engine and turn a drive shaft. We will then extrapolate from using a candle for heat to coal/nuclear/hydro, etc., to generate electricity.

3) We will then examine the amount of heat generated from a variety of sources: coals, natural gas, nuclear fission, etc. Activity to be developed (Dale)

Resources and Activities for teaching earth systems science and the sun

Activities to be used with discussion about solar energy after tracing energy from the plug in the student's house to its source:

Formation of the solar system and orbital parameters

Laboratory Activity: The Sun and Climate

Climate and Solar Radiation

Earth's Radiation Budget: Part 1

Tracking the Sun: Observing the Path of the Sun Throughout the Year

Power Source

The Energy Conundrum

Selecting Sites for Renewable Energy Projects 

Stream Flow

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Start with cross sectional area and velocity to get discharge. Use discharge and gradient to discuss stream power. Discuss dam design for hydroelectric power at maximum function. Look at values for case study dams. Get a quantity of energy over time. We can do stream power, use energy values over a year to convert energy to power (energy/time) Think how this converts into the motion of water. Use a case study (like Barker Reservoir, Kossler Reservoir in Boulder, CO) to get the height of a dam, get flow of water to determine flow of water needed. Discuss drought and evaporation issues. Use local case studies to increase relevance. Find information about the local dam for your students. You may develop ideas of large and small scale power on rivers, or even apply these ideas to the work done by tides, longshore drift and shoreline processes

Activities and Resources

Hydroelectric Power: How it Works

Kathy will develop a full activity based on Boulder Canyon Hydroelectric Power and will post it here. It will be a word document that others can modify for their own stream system case.

Sedimentary rocks

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focus on coal, petroleum, source rock, coal bed methane compost recycle formation water recycle nutrients, low rank coal potentially a renewable resource

Activities and Resources for Fossil Fuels and Sedimentary Basins

Lab Activity: Origins of Fossil Fuels

Take students through origins of different types of fossil fuels. Explain about burial, digenesis, thermal maturation. Demonstrate differences in coal rank (peat to anthracite) by using hand specimens/samples. Explain differences in heating values with rank (e.g. sub-bituminous 8000 Btu's/lb versus low volatile bituminous 15,000 Btu's/lb). Demonstrate differences in petroleum types (light vs. heavy crude and sweet vs. sour crude) by using samples.

Base information on all types of fossil fuels starting point:

Learning Topic/Discussion Points

1) Coal Bed Methane – renewable energy from low rank coals – can low rank coals be composted in-situ?

Base/initial reading:

Flores, Romeo (editor), 2008, Microbes, Methanogenesis, and Microbial Gas in Coal: International Journal of Coal Geology, v. 76, p. 1-186.

2) Peak Coal – do we have as much coal as we think – the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania reached peak production in the early 1920's, the Appalachian basin in the 1960's, etc. All coal basins reach a production peak. Is too much reliance being placed on coal?

Base/initial reading:

Kerr, Richard A., 2009, How much coal remains?: Science, v. 323, no. 5920, pp. 1420-1421.


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scale thinking units of energy, demonstrations, experiments, gravitational energy, potential and kinetic energy, landslides

Concept: earthquakes release energy. We can:

1) Visualize the mechanism by which seismic energy is released, from scales visible in the classroom to the real earth. This incorporates the concept of seismic moment (see reference below). It leads to discussion of the rock property of shear modulus, which can be qualitatively demonstrated for some materials in the classroom. It is based on the simple geometry of slip occurring over an area—like a foot slipping on the floor.

2) Calculate the magnitude of the earthquake. Use the moment magnitude formula (see reference below) to find the magnitude that results from a given seismic moment.

3) Calculate the radiated energy released by an earthquake as a function of its moment magnitude using the Richter formula (see reference below). This will give the seismic energy in Joules.

4) Convert the amount of energy released by an earthquake to human energy production or consumption (not to explosions!). This involves conversion from Joules to other units of energy such as kWh, BTU, calories, etc.

5) Compare the earthquake energy to human energy generation and consumption regimes (energy in a tank of gasoline; used by a home in a year; generated by a wind turbine; generated by a large coal power plant; etc.).

6) Understand the concept of power as differentiated form energy by considering time. Earthquakes release their energy over seconds or minutes; human systems work in the long run to provide energy. So, the energy used by the U.S. in a year might be released by a large earthquake in a minute. The earthquake has much higher power.

These conceptual steps can be converted into different kinds of classroom activity, from demonstrations by the teacher (breaking, or attempting to break, meter sticks and rods of rocks); to visualization of fault areas and slips in the classroom or outdoors; to calculations of moments, magnitudes, and energies on the board or using Excel spreadsheets in a lab; to discussion of the vast range of earthquake energy in relation to human energy consumption; and discussion of power vs. energy.

Moment magnitude

USGS definition of moment magnitude:

"...the seismic moment Mo of an earthquake can provide an empirical estimate of radiated energy. After Mo is measured, it is converted to a moment magnitude Mw by Mw = (2/3) log Mo – 6.0 where Mo is in Newton-meters (Joules). Mw is then used as the magnitude in the Richter formula to obtain an estimate of radiated energy."

The radiated energy can be obtained in various ways. Historically, the radiated energy was estimated empirically (from observations) from magnitude Ms through the Richter formula, log Es = 4.8 + 1.5Ms, where Es is seismic energy in Joules.

Seismic moment

USGS definition of seismic moment

"The seismic moment is a measure of the size of an earthquake based on the area of fault rupture, the average amount of slip, and the force that was required to overcome the friction sticking the rocks together that were offset by faulting. Seismic moment can also be calculated from the amplitude spectra of seismic waves.

Moment = µ A D

µ = shear modulus = 32 GPa in crust, 75 GPa in mantle
A = LW = area
D = average displacement during rupture

Cumulative/Term project: How will we know the students met our goals?

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  • Local Energy Field Trips and Group projects on local energy sources.

Within a short distance of our campus are a historic low flow mill dam running a nail factory, several wind generation sites, a large coal fired power plant, gas fired power plant, nuclear power plant, and a pumped storage power plant. The class size is usually limited to 35 students. The class is broken up into six groups and students are assigned to one of the power plants to develop a class brief covering the power plant assigned and the basic form of energy utilized and or associated fuel cycle. Following the group research the groups are assigned to visit the power plant and interview the operators. Students are expected to ask probing questions pertaining to pros and cons of each energy source. The group then modifies the brief to develop a more balanced analysis of the power source. On successive classes each group will have a speaker selected randomly to present the results of their group to the combined class. Each student then must prepare in the event that they are chosen to give the presentation.

  • With oral presentation or briefs posted on WebCT or Blackboard for larger classes we can determine that student changed in the three most important ways we set out for them from taking the course. We could also include these ancillary skills.

· Standing in front of a group
· Life long learners
· Working in a group
· Using information resources
· Quantifying concepts.