Initial Publication Date: October 9, 2017

Teaching about Energy

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions at the workshop, Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences, held in July 2012. Find examples of activities or courses for teaching about energy.
Teaching about energy offers abundant opportunities to incorporate sustainability themes into the classroom. Energy topics are a natural fit with related themes in sustainability such as climate change, water, human population and policy. Energy concepts span the geosciences, engineering and technology, economics, policy and more. Thus, teaching about energy can bridge societal issues, sustainability and the geosciences.

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

See examples of activities that can be used across the curriculum in the extensively reviewed InTeGrate modules:

In addition, the CLEAN project offers a guide to teaching the fundamental principles about energy: Teaching Energy Literacy

Teaching energy can be a topic that is personal, local or global. Various teaching methods can suit each approach. For specific examples, see activities or courses for teaching about energy.

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)