Teaching about Energy
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)
Effective strategies for teaching about energy
- Humans' Dependence on Earth's Mineral Resources and
- Energy and the Environment online course (site hosted by Penn State University).
In addition, the CLEAN project offers a guide to teaching the fundamental principles about energy: Teaching Energy Literacy
- Case studies to delve into particular geographic regions or types of energy
- Hands-on labs with energy technology (solar cells, turbines) (example: Using Lab Measurements to Determine the Feasibility of a Photovoltaic Panel)
- Use of data sets to examine energy trends over time, imports/exports, sources and uses of energy, and energy pricing
- Using a quantitative approach to examining energy choices (example: Back of the Envelope Calculations: Renewable Energy)
- Personal energy use analysis and taking actions to conserve (example: Action to Enhance Sustainability)
- Campus energy audits
- Field trips to a local energy plant, transmission lines, mine, or renewable energy installation (example: Urban Environmental Excursions)
- Town hall meeting-style discussions in class to explore options as well as pros and cons of various local energy sources (example: The Great Energy Debate)
- Explore policy implications for alternative energy sources (example: A mock legislative debate to enhance and integrate student understanding of climate change science, policy, economics and ethics)
- Using GIS or local energy maps (where does our power come from, where does it go?)
- Life cycle analyses
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)