Teaching Sustainability in Physics

Sustainability in physics can be a great way to link standard physics concepts to topics applicable to the real world and of interest to students.

Sustainability issues are inherently interdisciplinary. See the Resources & Discussions page for resources that span multiple disciplines and the Disciplinary Perspectives pages.

Exploring Sustainability through Physics

  • Energy and Work - Foundations for Sustainability Issues
  • Thermodynamics - Issues of Heat, Entropy, and Energy Use
  • Electricity and Magnetism - Commercial power and use
  • Nuclear Physics - Commercial power generation and waste
  • Electronics - Energy transport

Sustainability and Physics for the Undergraduate Curriculum


PhET Simulation: Greenhouse gases - sense making by observing photons
This simulation-based activity illustrates how different gases and clouds affect the earth's temperature. Students are guided through an exploration of connections between temperature and the microscopic properties of molecules in the atmosphere. The qualitative nature of the simulation makes the activity suitable for a wide range of classes. Students can extend the activity to determine the changes that can cause an ice age or extensive global warming.

St. Marys College: Energy Management Simulators
This web page provides a series of simulators for energy supply, demand, production, and waste. These are suitable for a wide range of student explorations. Related is an example Energy 2100 class project for exploring global energy production and demand in an introductory general physics course.
For more resources on teaching sustainability across many disciplines, see the SERC Sustainability Site Guide. This site guide contains annotated links to hundreds of teaching activities, course descriptions, visualizations, and articles compiled through a number of projects.

Textbooks and Other Resources

Teaching About Energy

AAPT/PTRA teaching manual on Energy

Foundations of Environmental Physics
Textbook for a course on environmental issues studied through the use of physics-related concepts

Sustainable Energy - without the hot air
A constructive, educational, and quantitative review of energy, environmental, and climate issues.

C21: Physics Teaching for the 21st Century
A collection of activities, videos, and other teaching resources that incorporate 21st Century problems into physics courses. Of particular interest are the active student explorations in the Take-Home Experiments section of the site.

Al Bartlett: The Essential Exponential
This web site is dedicated to the work of Al Bartlett on issues of sustainability, population, energy, and economics. Information about his book The Essential Exponential and several of his presentations are available.

Journal Articles

The AAPT Resource Letters in the American Journal of Physics, focused on a particular topic in physics, or connections between physics and other disciplines or topics. Each Letter provides a brief introduction to the topic and a bibliography of articles, books, websites, and other resources. These topical introductions are well-suited for those interested in teaching the topic in some depth. For topics where active research is ongoing and the field is changing, multiple letters may be created.

Incorporating Sustainability and 21st-Century Problem Solving into Physics Courses
Example from a Multidisciplinary Science Education project at Ithaca College

Using Environmental Science as a Motivational Tool to Teach Physics to Non-Science Majors
A freely available article from The Physics Teacher outlining the change of a standard physical science course into an environmental physical science class. Basic physical principles are applied to environmental issues of current interest.

Fukushima Daiichi Accident and Its Radiological Impact on the Environment
A freely available article from The Physics Teacher describing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident and ways this event can be used to motivate discussion in physics classes.


Physicists Teaching Sustainability

Physics for Future Presidents
University of California-Berkeley course on the physics and science of societal issues.

Organizations and Institutes with Additional Resources

American Institute of Physics - The Discovery of Global Warming
This web site by Spencer Weart, the companion to a smaller book of the same name, provides a scholarly history of climate change research.

American Physical Society - Future Energy - Energy Efficiency Study
This report web site examines energy efficiency examines what works, what can work soon, and what is feasible for the future from a scientific and technological perspective.

Continuing Education and Networking

Physics and Society Education Group
This is the home page of the Physics and Society Education special interest group, started by members of the American Association of Physics Teachers. It includes a link to an active email list on issues related to physics and society, as well and newsletters and links to related efforts.

APS: Forum on Physics and Society
This division of the American Physical Society is a collaboration of physicists interested in the relations between the physics community and society. The quarterly FPS newsletters provide a wide range of articles for those interested in these topics.

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