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 Earth-focused Modules and Courses for the Undergraduate Classroom
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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The materials are free and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
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Instructor Materials: Overview of the Renewable Energy and Environmental Sustainability Course

The overarching goal of this course is to teach basic geosciences principles through an exploration of environmentally sustainable technologies.

Supporting Course Goals:

  1. Students will apply the geoscience principles underlying, and social implications of, implementing new technologies to address issues of energy and resource scarcity and environmental sustainability.
  2. Students will use both data they collect themselves and data collected and published by others to test the efficacy of various green technologies.
  3. Students will apply their knowledge to develop sustainable energy and resource conservation strategies as individuals and as a society.
  4. Students will use learner-centered techniques to organize geoscience and social science data, and to analyze and present case studies relevant to the adoption of green technologies.
  5. Students will learn how to develop meaningful questions about energy, resources, society, and sustainability that address higher levels of cognition.

Course Description

This course will explore a variety of sustainable technologies with emphasis on understanding the fundamental scientific properties underlying each. Students will also examine appropriate applications of the technologies and evaluate their use with environmental and economic considerations.

Students attending college in the United States today grew up in a culture that is transitioning to a new understanding of the need to move toward a future built upon environmental sustainability. A large element of this shift involves embracing appropriate technologies to facilitate post-industrial age lifestyles. The responsibility for implementing the revolution in the way we relate to our environment will fall squarely on the shoulders of the current generation of college students. In their lifetime they will participate in the most important restructuring of society since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Most college students possess sufficient basic knowledge to associate many emerging technologies with the concept of sustainability. They are excited about adopting new approaches to replace the "dirty" solutions of the past. On a superficial level they understand the "green-ness" of such things as wind turbines, photovoltaic solar cells, and hybrid electric vehicles. Yet few students outside of specialized STEM disciplines comprehend: 1) The basic principles governing these technologies; 2) The environmental implications associated with each, and; 3) The social and economic implications of implementing sustainable alternatives. They also lack direct exposure to these technologies; few have been in a building powered by solar energy or have driven a hybrid-electric car. Absent a deeper understanding of and direct experience with these emerging technologies, today's students will be unable to fully contribute to and participate in the revolution toward sustainability.

Green technologies are only important in the context of solving real-world problems. Each technology will be taught so as to address how it fits into solving the puzzle of sustainability.

The target audience of this course is any college student on campus. This philosophy embraces the notion that courses populated by academically diverse students will produce a better outcome for all involved. Since the course draws on many different disciplines to develop a broad and deep understanding of the issues, it is natural to expect the course to attract a diverse enrollment.

One goal of this class is to use green technology as a platform to teach basic scientific principles. While successful STEM students master enough basic science and mathematics to fulfill their curriculum requirements, experience often reveals the great difficulty they have in applying what they have learned to anything other than the memorized textbook examples. The non-STEM majors typically suffer from science and math phobia, and find difficulty in using science and quantification to understand the world around them. This course teaches the technology first and then introduces the underlying science.

This allows students to first develop interest in the topic, and that makes the ensuing formulas and theories that much more palatable. Math and science instruction so often fails because we teach it backward. We say, "learn these principles and equations, and once you get into the club we will show you their application and why they are so cool." Of course, students soon forget the mostly meaningless formulas after the course. Geosciences-based instruction offers the "real world (by definition!)" opportunity to illustrate fundamental principles of math and science in a way that should stick with the student. A hands-on experiment with different-colored solar collectors facilitates more deep and sustained learning about light and the electromagnetic spectrum than a well-crafted PowerPoint lecture.

Teaching and Learning Approach

This course is based on the discovery approach to learning and is designed to work in a modern "flipped classroom" as explained on the Course Design and Structure page. However, one may certainly use these materials in the more traditional instructor-centered approach. Each technology examined will address the following questions:

1. What is its purpose?
2. How does it work?
3. What are the basic underlying scientific principles?
4. What are the environmental consequences (good and bad) of its adoption?
5. What are the social and economic consequences of its adoption?
6. What factors inhibit its adoption?
7. How does this technology compare with traditional technologies and other alternative green technologies?

Course Outline

Course Design
and Structure »
This course on renewable energy for environmental sustainability uses a modular approach, with each module designed to be completed within a single two- to three-hour class period. Modules 1–4 focus on the management of thermal energy. Modules 5–7 introduce concepts regarding electricity, light, and mechanical energy. Module 7 uses the concepts from the preceding lessons to explore conservation and efficiency. Module 9 looks at technologies for cleaner automotive transportation. Module 10 ties together concepts of energy with resource conservation through an investigation of composting toilets as an alternative to septic and wastewater treatment systems. All modules include geoscience components.

Module 1Electricity, Work, and Power

An introduction to the basic concepts that inform the technologies to be discussed.

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Be able to distinguish the differences between energy and work, and provide examples of each using appropriate units.
  2. Be able to match the following terms with appropriate meanings: electron, volt, conductor, semi-conductor, insulator, resistance, current, amps, watts, ohms, watt hours.
  3. Identify the elements of an electrical circuit.
  4. State the differences between parallel and series circuits, and note the effects on voltage and current.
  5. Explain the relationship between the flow of current and magnetism, and show how this is the basis for electric motors and generators.
  6. Distinguish alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) electricity, identify the useful qualities of each, note which devices are associated with each, and describe the role of power inverters.

Module 2Using Wind to Do Work

Sailboats, windmills, and wind turbines.

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Be able to recount the historical use of wind energy to include power for boats and ships, pumping water, processing grain and sugar cane, and making electricity. Students will evaluate the impact of each of these technologies on the history of social development to include trade, agriculture, and human dispersal.
  2. Be able to use data they collect to test the relationship between airfoil design and energy harnessed.
  3. Be able to explain the basic principles involved in transferring wind energy to mechanical energy, to include the roles of lift, drag, velocity, and ways to link foils to rotating shafts.
  4. Be able to use published data sets to evaluate specific locations for siting of wind turbines, to include fluctuations in wind velocity associated with altitude, latitude, and daily and seasonal cycles. Interpret US maps of wind fields—spatial and seasonal. Evaluate their state for wind farms.
  5. Articulate the potential negative and positive environmental effects of wind turbines, including economic cost and environmental impacts of wind farms.
  6. Compare electrical-generating capacity between a wind farm and a natural gas-fired power plant to include the issue of reliable base load generation.
  7. Be able to diagram the major circulation pattern of wind on the planet and to detail the underlying principles involved.

Module 3Thermal Energy from Light

Solar collectors to heat water and buildings.

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Be able to recount the historical development of solar heating and solar cooking.
  2. Be able to create an annotated diagram of a solar-powered hot-water system for household use.
  3. Distinguish between single- and double-loop solar hot-water systems, and explain when the use of each is most appropriate.
  4. Use data they collect from experimentation to discover the relationship between energy uptake and color for solar collectors.
  5. Be able to explain the greenhouse effect including the role of short and long wavelength radiation and to relate this to data they collect from experimentation.

Module 4Creating Electricity from Light

Photovoltaic and solar-thermal generation.

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Recount the fundamental principles of electricity to include the concepts of charge, current, voltage, resistance, and conduction.
  2. Contrast parallel and series circuits.
  3. Articulate how the photoelectric effect is harnessed in photovoltaic (PV) cells to create the flow of electrons.
  4. Be able to distinguish between concentrated and dispersed solar-electric production and note the advantages and disadvantages of each.
  5. Evaluate the important parameters used for location of solar systems (latitude, slope, aspect, shading, and cloudiness).
  6. Determine economic cost and environmental impacts of PV technology.
  7. Be able to differentiate among approaches using concentrated solar production to make electricity.
  8. Distinguish between grid-tied and stand-alone photovoltaic systems and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
  9. Be able to list and explain the limitations of using sunlight to produce electricity.

Module 5Passive Designs for Optimizing with Nature

Smart building designs to conserve energy.

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Be able to explain the different types of energy and the application of basic thermodynamic principles as applied to building design.
  2. Distinguish between active and passive design at different building scales.
  3. Be able to identify the site-specific roles of orientation, insulation, ventilation, roofing, roof pitch, overhangs, and window placement in optimizing passive design.
  4. Be able to identify different methods to illuminate buildings using natural light.
  5. Evaluate the economic benefits of passive-design buildings versus standard buildings.

Module 6Energy from and to Earth

Geothermal energy and ground exchange heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Determine what components of geothermal energy are renewable.
  2. Evaluate the distribution of heat in different types of rock at different depths, locations (e.g., tectonic zones vs granites, limestone).
  3. Determine the high heat capacity of water.
  4. Evaluate heat exchangers.
  5. Determine economic cost and environmental impacts of using geothermal energy.

Module 7Better Ways to Illuminate

From incandescent to fluorescent and LEDs.

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Describe the similarities and differences among incandescent, fluorescent, and light-emitting diode (LED) lighting.
  2. Collect and compare data on the amount of light and heat generated by incandescent, fluorescent, and LED bulbs and recommend the most appropriate lighting for a given scenario.
  3. Determine the cost differences in operating incandescent, fluorescent, and LED lighting and calculate their payback periods.
  4. Describe factors inhibiting the widespread adoption of compact fluorescent and LED lighting.

Module 8Efficiency and Conservation are the Cheapest Fuels

Figuring out waste and how to control it.

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Describe some of the materials used to insulate modern homes and buildings
  2. Collect data on the ability of different insulation types to retain heat, and calculate their heat loss.
  3. Assess the efficiency of different insulating materials
  4. Assess a structure's resource use and propose ways that will make resource use more efficient.

Module 9Hybrid and Electric Cars

Conversion and storage of electrical energy for transport.

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Compare energy costs and environmental impacts associated with hybrid, electric, and fossil fuel-based vehicles.
  2. Determine energy efficiency improvements associated with regenerative braking.
  3. Use flywheel technology to convert kinetic energy into electrical energy (rowing machine hooked to a generator, or simple bike light generator).
  4. Evaluate mineral scarcity for rare earth elements used in batteries.

Module 10Energy from Biofuels

Wood, manure, bio-lipids, alcohol, and methane for heat and light.

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Be able to recount the history of the use of biofuels during the course of human cultural development, including the impact on forests and whales.
  2. Be able list and explain the impacts of biofuels on human health and air quality.
  3. Be able to distinguish between alcohol fermentation and methane production from feedstocks, noting the different underlying biological processes and approaches to production.
  4. Evaluate the production of alcohol from sugar cane and corn, including the economics, energy efficiency, and ecological impact of each feedstock.
  5. Use data collected from experimentation to determine how different feedstocks determine the biofuels produced under anaerobic conditions.
  6. Use published data to evaluate the efficacy of using land for biofuel production versus solar electric production.

Module 11Composting Toilets Align Human Biogeochemistry with Nature

Alternative to flush toilets.

Learning Objectives — Students will:

  1. Describe how a composting toilet functions in comparison to a flush toilet.
  2. Describe how a septic system functions.
  3. Evaluate water use differences between composting and flush toilets.

Capstone AssessmentCapstone Summary Assessment

Making the Materials Work

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »