PHYS-P 120: An Online Course on Energy Use, Production and its Future

March 12th, 2014

By Yu Kay Law, Ph.D.

In recent years, there have been many news headlines related to energy in everyday life: gas mileage mandates from the government, tar sands and the environment, the possibility that we’ll run out of crude oil, biodiesel and wind energy … and so on.  It is important that Indiana and our nation (and the world as a whole) has a well-informed citizenry that understands the science behind what is discussed in the media as well as the economic and environmental impact behind choices we make as a nation and as mankind.YuKayLaw

With this in mind, I think that it’s very important that a balanced view of this topic is reached.  It is important that we understand the principles and issues related to the use of fossil fuels (including why they’re so convenient!) and also have a good understanding of renewable fuel sources.  On the other hand, we need to have an understanding of what energy is and how much energy is used in different everyday activities.  This sounds like common sense, but quite a few textbooks are written without a balanced treatment of all of these issues.  Furthermore, textbooks quickly become out of date, given that our energy portfolio and the available technologies change significantly over time.

In response to this, I have developed using a Course Development Grant an online course – PHYS-P 120 (Energy and Technology) – which is designed to achieve exactly these goals.  Starting with an overview of what energy is, students learn about our energy use in everyday life – cumulating with an overview of how energy is used in everyday life.  The course then changes course to examine various energy sources used in society today, discussing the principles and issues related to the use of each of these energy sources.  It cumulates with a discussion of strategies for resolving energy issues in the future.

In terms of course delivery and organization, the course features a range of videos and reading assignments; a “right-tech” approach was designed for the course in order that .  Reading assignments are taken from a wide range of e-books, ranging from textbooks on the subject to parts of specialized texts and relevant articles.  Likewise, while many videos were produced for this course – ranging from traditional short online lecture-presentations to “at-home” demonstrations and illustrations of concepts in the course – students were also assigned documentaries and other videos on events and controversies related to the course material.

After learning about the material through reading and video-watching, a range of supporting learning activities were assigned for students to participate in.  In particular, students were also assigned a range of open-ended questions that contain value judgments related to the material to discuss in the context of social problems to discuss as a class.  In addition, all course participants – including myself – were required to estimate their energy use and compare and contrast how different lifestyles and living conditions affect our energy use per person, and to examine what the major contributions to our energy use are – some of the answers are in fact rather surprising to those who haven’t done the calculation!

At the end of this six-week intensive course, students will have an understanding of the issues facing us in the energy realm, and will be able to participate intelligently in discussions on challenges, controversies, and choices that society faces in using and “generating” usable energy – questions for which there are no “correct” answers.