For the InstructorThese student materials complement the Renewable Energy and Environmental Sustainability Instructor Materials. If you would like your students to have access to the student materials, we suggest you either point them at the Student Version which omits the framing pages with information designed for faculty (and this box). Or you can download these pages in several formats that you can include in your course website or local Learning Managment System. Learn more about using, modifying, and sharing InTeGrate teaching materials.
Introduction: Renewable Energy and Environmental Sustainability — Responding to Our Changing World
In 1900, few people had automobiles; transportation centered on walking, steam and electric trains, bicycles, and animals (horses, oxen, donkeys, cattle). Today there are about 250 million cars in the United States for a population of 300 million people. Almost all the cars rely on gasoline or diesel fuel. While some urban areas have subways, light rail, and bus systems, most Americans rely upon cars to get around.
In the 19th century there was no air conditioning, and people heated their houses and bath water by burning wood, coal, or oil in open fireplaces. Today we rely mostly on natural gas and oil to heat our houses and water.
Over the last century, agriculture moved from reliance on manual and animal labor to heavy energy subsidies from fossil fuels. For conventional farming in the United States it takes about 10 units of fossil fuel energy to produce one unit of food energy.
The growing population coupled with an energy-intensive lifestyle means that we burn through massive quantities of fossil fuel each day. This has several consequences. First, the amount of fossil fuel is finite—we will run out sooner or later. Wars have been fought over access to oil. Second, the extraction of fossil fuels pollutes the environment with mine tailings and oil spills. Third, the burning of fossil fuels adds more pollution, including carbon dioxide and other gases, that overheats the atmosphere and acidifies the ocean. Today the rapidly industrializing cities of China suffer air pollution from fossil fuels that darkens the skies and shortens the lives of the residents.
The issues outlined above suggest a challenging future for our planet. The harnessing of fossil fuels that powered the Industrial Revolution transformed society, and the environment, but not in a sustainable way. The health of the global ecosystem, including the human component, depends on a second revolution in the way we engage Earth's natural resources. This course will explore the emerging technologies that will inform a sustainable future. 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.
What is sustainability?
Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.
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 "greenness" 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; 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 student 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 in solving the puzzle of sustainability.
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 the students to first develop interest in the topic, which 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 in to the club we will show you their application and why they are so cool." Of course the 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.