Physics of Energy as a Travel Course in the Western US

Submitted by Dr. Katrina Hay
2012-01-18 13:12:36

by Dr. Katrina Hay, Assistant Professor of Physics, Pacific Lutheran University

Inspired by a growing concern for sustainability and environmental impact of conventional fuel usage, I designed a new physics course at Pacific Lutheran University, which provides students with an understanding of the underlying physical principles of energy production. The course is offered to all students, regardless of major. I used the textbook Energy Environment and Climate by Richard Wolfson.

The western United States is an ideal area to study practical use and research of hydroelectric, wind, nuclear, solar, ocean wave and geothermal energy sources. The course was taught for the first time in January 2011 and travelled via Amtrak Coast Starlight train, making stops in Washington, Oregon and California. Students became aware of their individual impact on the global energy situation by experiencing first hand the physics connection between communities and energy resources.

This short intensive course is divided into two parts: two weeks in class and two weeks in travel. In the classroom, students learned problem solving skills and the history and basic physics of energy (including conceptual electromagnetism, thermodynamics and radioactivity). Students participated in simple experiments, which demonstrated energy conversion. Activities were designed using the Energy Transfer Generator from Pasco Scientific and the Science Workshop software interface.

Travel planning began a year in advance. Scientists and engineers were contacted from a variety of energy research and production facilities. Train stops were chosen according to proximity to the Coast Starlight route and these criteria: Students should meet scientists/researchers/engineers as well as people who work with the energy source daily, such as maintenance personnel, and people affected by production, i.e. the community. We traveled to these locations: the Bonneville Hydroelectric Dam near Portland, Oregon, the research nuclear reactor and the ocean wave energy engineering project at Oregon State University, and the Oregon Institute of Technology Geothermal Plant. In addition, we hiked in the Columbia River Gorge to discuss wind energy, hiked in the Angeles National Forest to discuss geology and studied a field of solar panels in southern California. Topics not covered in travel were covered in class, sometimes by a guest lecturer (for example, nuclear fusion, batteries and bio-fuels). One of the most valuable moments in the course was when students heard from a city planner about the challenges in getting funding for energy projects and about the creativity and drive of the workers in the town who supported these projects.

While in transit, students were assigned reading sections in the textbook that related to each upcoming visit and write three questions in their travel journals to ask the engineer that they were about to meet. This had excellent results; my students were popular tourists because they were enthusiastic, interested, and asked good questions. After each energy visit, students wrote answers to their questions and I conducted a class discussion, sometimes in a hotel lobby or train dining room. Here are some of the written and verbal comments I received from students at the end of the course:
"I'll suggest my parents dig a geothermal well to heat their house."
"I want to put solar panels on my home."
"I think we should vote to recycle nuclear waste."
"I will collect all the facts before making judgments."
"Renewable energy is where I want to be, as an engineer."
"I hope to use these skills to live a greener life."
"Physics isn't as scary as I thought, it's everywhere around us. Now I can apply it to real applications."

For teachers looking to create a similar course, I urge you to seek out public transportation and energy activities in your own region. This sends the message to students that environment and sustainability played a central role in planning your course. The reoccurring lesson in my course turned out to be that the solution to our energy crisis lies in conservation and prioritizing local rather than distant energy resources. We chose train travel because it is more energy efficient than air or car travel. I also recommend offering an honorarium to people who give tours or lectures to your students. And remember that energy, environment and climate can be polarizing topics and some students may react intensely. I presented the science, encouraged open-mindedness and allowed students to observe effects of energy choices for themselves.

The class made a travel blog together with photos and stories of our journey.

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