Renewable Energy and Environmental Sustainability > Student Materials > Course Description and Structure

Course Description and Structure

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.

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 that 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.

InTeGraTe Goals as part of the course:

This course was developed under the InTeGrate program which seeks to provide innovative geoscience education for college students. Below are the InTeGrate goals and brief comments on how each is addressed in this course.

  1. Use geoscience-related grand challenges facing society — The students will explore the grand challenge of how society can use clean energy technologies as part of the response to global climate change.
  2. Develop students' ability to address interdisciplinary problems — The course examines the various technologies from a broad, interdisciplinary approach. Modules include history, social science, physics, and geoscience.
  3. Improve student understanding of the nature and methods of geoscience and developing geoscientific habits of mind — The modules are designed for the students to understand the various technologies in the light of geoscience concepts. The hands-on exercises encourage investigation of geoscience principles related to each technology.
  4. Make use of authentic and credible geoscience data — All of the modules provide opportunities for students to work with geoscience or related data. This includes data they generate themselves in experiments as well as published geoscience data.
  5. Incorporate systems thinking — The modules are designed so the students understand the technologies as part of a large and dynamic world, which requires systems thinking. The course is built around understanding and application of various sustainable technologies. Each technology can be learned as a system as well as its role as part of the greater Earth system.

Using Systems Thinking to Understand Sustainability and Sustainable Technologies

In order to address the complex problems associated with building a sustainable future, we must use models of thinking that allow us to understand the world as a vast series of interacting systems. Early Western science employed reductionist thinking to help understand nature. This is a powerful tool and revealed important discoveries, such as the fact that molecules are composed of atoms. A reductionist thinker says that the whole is the sum of its parts. This works for understanding many things, but not for other more complex and dynamic phenomena. A more holistic approach is systems thinking. The systems thinker studies systems of interacting components. Consider water at room temperature. It is wet. The reductionist thinker says water consists of two gases (at room temperature), oxygen and hydrogen. But at room temperature water forms a liquid and a gas (water vapor). So water is different from the simple sum of its parts.

View this short video for an introduction to systems thinking Systems thinking made simple video.

Things to know about systems and systems thinking:

  1. Systems consist of parts.
  2. The parts of systems interact and in so doing may change the system.
  3. Energy and materials flow through systems. The amount of time matter stays in a system is called residence time.
  4. Systems have boundaries. Some systems are closed, with nothing getting in or out, but most others are open to some degree as matter and energy flow in and out.
  5. Systems may have controls. Positive feedback happens when increases of one component causes even more increase in that component. Negative feedback happens when the increase of a component causes a subsequent decrease in that component.
  6. Systems may be stable or unstable through time. Some systems have multiple stable states.
  7. Systems at equilibrium have a balance of inputs and outputs of a particular material or energy.
  8. Systems may yield results different than one expects. There are emergent properties of systems that are more than the simple sum of the parts.

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 below. As each technology is examined we 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?

In the traditional classroom students spend most of their time listening to a professor, viewing PowerPoint presentations, and taking notes. The classroom time is devoted to delivery of the basic course content. Consequently most college students avoid assigned readings, and many never even obtain an assigned textbook.

The flipped classroom takes an entirely different approach. The students are expected to arrive in class having acquired the basic material by reading for meaning, viewing videos, and engaging in other learning activities outside the classroom environment. The classroom time is reserved for active learning activities, such as discussion, student presentations, experimentation, reflection, and small group work.

Learner centered classroom. The circle is best for flipped classroom work.

Student Responsibilities and Materials Guidelines and Tips

Student responsibilities:

Student responsibility #1. Students must read the student section of the module in depth prior to coming to class.

Student responsibility #2. Student-generated quiz and discussion questions. The students will be required to develop six written questions based on the readings. The first two questions are based upon the topic covered in the preceding class meeting. These will be used for the daily quiz. The professor calls on five different students to state their questions. All students write answers. Then the professor calls on five other students to state their responses. The class discusses each answer as needed until everyone understands what constitutes a correct answer. Students score their quizzes based upon the right answer as indicated by the professor. The quiz should take 10–15 min.

Student responsibility #3. After the quiz, the class will turn to the next four student-generated discussion questions. These are based upon the current readings for the day.Professor-controlled discussion will be used, with the professor calling on one student for a question and another for an answer. Any particular question may involve multiple inputs from different students as the discussion unfolds. The discussion should take around 20 min. Note that "professor- controlled discussion" ensures that all members of the class participate on a near-equal basis.

Students earn points for bringing the quiz and discussion questions, as well as for their performance on the quiz. Emphasis is placed on developing thoughtful questions that go beyond simple definitions or facts, to address higher levels of cognition. The size of the class will determine how often a student is called upon to for a quiz or discussion question.

Science is as much about asking the right questions as it is about finding the correct answer.

Exercise to teach higher-level question development — It is important that you learn to ask meaningful questions about the material in this course. Science is as much about asking a useful question as it is about finding a good answer. Good questions probe the material for such things as cause and effect, relationships, evaluations, and applications. Facts and definitions are certainly important as they form the base of the knowledge tree. But if students only learn facts and definitions, they will develop no context for understanding the material and applying their knowledge in a useful way. This course will require you to come to class each day with written questions for quizzes and discussion. Your questions should include those that require higher levels of understanding, and you will be graded on this. To help you develop the skill of creating questions you will read the following passage and then write three questions per the instructions below the reading. This passage is taken from the module on Energy from Biomass.

"Currently E10 blend (10% alcohol) is the main form of gasoline on the US market and has been in use since the early 1980s. Ethanol is added to gasoline for two reasons. First, it replaces MTBE (Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether) as an additive to give a cleaner burn. Without MTBE or ethanol, car engines produce smog-forming pollutants (organic and nitrogen compounds). In addition, the ethanol is a fuel, and thus replaces a portion of the gasoline that comes from petroleum.

In 2010, the US EPA authorized the use of E15 blend. The idea is that ethanol from biomass is more sustainable than gasoline from petroleum. But there are important objections to using ethanol for energy. The massive use of corn for fuel and animal feed has reduced the supply of corn for people to eat. And that has driven up the price of corn. This is having a devastating effect on poor people in developing nations such as Mexico that have come to rely upon imported corn.

The kind of corn agriculture practiced in the United States is not sustainable. Huge monocultures (single crop of the same variety) of corn require pesticides to kill insects, herbicides to kill weeds, water for irrigation, and vast quantities of nitrogen fertilizers. Those nitrogen fertilizers are made by a process that uses large quantities of fossil fuels. Much of the fertilizer applied to the corn washes away and eventually makes its way into the Mississippi River. The river carries it to the Gulf of Mexico, where the fertilizer promotes the growth of algae. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom waters, and the process of decomposition uses up the available oxygen. This produces a "dead zone" where animals like fish cannot live. The herbicides and pesticides are pollutants that degrade soil, air, and water. Most of the corn is also genetically modified. This controversial biological engineering process may also damage the environment.

Car and boat owners are also less than thrilled about ethanol in gasoline. The alcohol damages rubber hoses and engine seals. This is a larger problem in older vehicles not designed to withstand the ethanol. The problem is more acute for boat owners as the ethanol attracts water from the moist marine air. The water-gas-ethanol mix produces a gooey mass in fuel tanks and lines, requiring expensive repairs.

a. Write a question that addresses only a simple fact or definition.

b. Write a question that requires synthesis of information.

c. Write a question that requires evaluation and application of knowledge.

Student responsibility #4. Student presentations. The professor will generate a list of topics to be addressed in student presentations. These will appear in the course syllabus. On the first day of class, students will sign up for their chosen presentation topics. The number of topics and the length of presentations will be governed by the size of the class. There should be a minimum of one student presentation per class, and every student should present at least once. The topics will cover an appropriate subject for that day's material. They may drill deeper into an issue from the readings, or be based upon contemporary events that link to that day's work. The rest of the students in the class must write two questions to ask the presenter at the end of the talk. Presenters will be scored with a rubric that incorporates the course and InTeGrate goals.

Tips for creating effective presentations

    1. Read the question you are addressing three times to be sure you answer what is asked.
    2. Use a variety of sources in developing your presentation rather than just one website.
    3. Figure about one slide per minute, so a 10-minute presentation should have about 10 slides.
    4. Minimize the use of words on the slides and rely more on images, diagrams, graphs, and maps.
    5. Do not use complete sentences. Write in very short phrases.
    6. Do not read the slides to the audience.
    7. Avoid using note cards. Instead each slide should prompt your speech. Do not worry about forgetting to say something. If it is really important, be sure it is on a slide.
    8. Be creative in your presentation and have fun with it!

Student responsibility #5. Participation in laboratory experiments and writing of the associated report. The remainder of each class will be devoted to a hands-on laboratory exercise designed to integrate with that day's topic. The students will perform experiments and collect data in class. They may also be called upon to analyze online data sets from outside of class. These analyzed data along with answers to questions around application and understanding will be addressed in the module report. The students will be assessed using a rubric that incorporates the course and InTeGrate goals. Each module requires a report.

Students testing the effect of color on solar uptake

Instructions to students for producing their laboratory reports — Each course module includes a laboratory component where you will perform experiments and do activities to explore the concepts being studied. The laboratory report you write must be organized according to the form presented below. Note that each section must be labeled as indicated and include the requested information. The assignment must be turned in as an Excel document, with inserts of MS Word text blocks. All calculations and graphs must be done in Excel. Making graphs with Excel has gotten much more difficult for students in recent years as each new version of the software incorporates more non-intuitive steps. YouTube videos are an excellent resource to recommend to your students. Here are a few examples:

Structure of Module Reports

Title: Provide a useful title that describes the work.

Introduction: This section must state the purpose of the work and provide background information as to why it is important. There also should be a statement of which module and course learning objectives are addressed in the exercise. Two paragraphs are sufficient for this section.

Methods and Material: Write this in paragraph form, not as a list. Say what materials were used, how they were used, and when and where the work was done.

Results: This section contains two items: 1) displays of the data collected in tables or graphs and; 2) paragraphs that explain in words what was found. In the paragraphs the writer should refer to tables or figures by their number. In this section just say what you discovered, not the why of it; that comes later. Be sure to label each graph's axes and to use units with all numbers for calculations. Units must also be labeled in tables and graphs. Every figure (graph) or table must be numbered and have a title. Do all calculations using Excel formulas. These can be formulas that you create or those that reside in Excel.

Discussion: In this section explain the "why" of your findings. Explain how what you discovered relates to the green technology of interest. To do this, address each of the following questions:

    1. What is the purpose of the technology?
    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?
    8. What InTeGrate grand challenge(s) were addressed in this module and how?

One or two sentences for each of the above questions should be sufficient.

References: Provide the source for information you cited that you found online, in books, etc.

Appropriate classroom behaviors

The flipped-classroom setting requires that students be fully engaged for the duration of the class. It is good to explicitly state the expected behaviors in the course syllabus and to emphasize this in the first class meeting.

  1. Students must arrive on time and with the required work for the day.
  2. Students must not leave class prior to dismissal unless they are ill.
  3. No texting or similar activity is allowed during class. However, students are encouraged to use smart phones or other devices for smart reasons, such as note-taking, referencing the module material, searching a topic as part of their classroom work.
  4. Students must treat all other members of the class with respect and listen closely to what they say.
  5. Students must attend all class meetings unless they are ill or have an emergency situation.

The first class meeting

The first day of class will be used to explore the course objectives and the student responsibilities (downloadable copy: Student Responsibilities (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 22kB Jun28 17)).

The second class meeting

We will devote the second class meeting to Module 1, Electricity, Work, and Power, which provides an introduction to the basic concepts that inform the technologies to be discussed. This module will also serve a resource for students when they need to review basic concepts while exploring the various technologies.

The third and subsequent class meetings

We will do the modules in the order outlined in the syllabus as mush as possible. However, we may revise that sequencing in response to weather conditions. For example, the exercises for the module on wind do not work on a still day. Other modules that require sunlight are best attempted when it is not raining! In practice this means that the first part of the class may be devoted to the scheduled module for that day, but the students may actually end up with a different exercise due to weather conditions.

The final class meeting

The final class meeting will be devoted to putting the entire course in context, helping students draw their newly acquired knowledge together in a systems-thinking way. It is also important the the students do some metacognition to that lets them take ownership of the scaffold of knowledge where they see the connections between each technology, to sustainability. This will require some reflection on their part. This will be done with a capstone activity involving the design of a community that uses the technologies explored in the course.