What is energy? We use it in our cars, homes, and cell phones everyday, but we rarely take the time to think about what it is. One definition of energy is power; power that is derived from various physical or chemical resources that can be used in machines for all sorts of useful purposes. But where do we get this power and how do we get it out to people? Another way we can define energy is as a set of decisions about how to allocate resources, or as a way to analyze the history of a civilization, or even as a way to imagine the future. In this 5-week course, we’ll examine both technical and humanitarian definitions of energy. We’ll learn the mechanics behind some popular energy technologies (and even build some ourselves), and we’ll also learn the history behind where our energy system comes from, the economics behind how we allocate energy, and the ways that America’s energy system compares to that of other nations.
The early 20th century saw a major revolution in energy. New technologies created a surging demand for oil and electricity, and new methods of industrial production made it possible to generate huge amounts of both resources on location. This created a novel problem of how to get energy from the place it was generated to the people who wanted it. This course will analyze how Americans decided to solve that problem. Content in the course will rely heavily on the overlap between science, technology and history. We will explore case studies of historical sites such as the Hoover Dam, in order to illustrate important science topics such as conservation of energy.
You’ve probably heard the expression that chemistry is everything. But few people can appreciate how fundamental some elements are to our everyday lives. In this one-week course, students will begin with a brief introduction into how to classify elements on the periodic table using their atomic number and material structure. From there, our study will move into the investigation of three fundamentally important elements for our modern energy industry: carbon (gasoline), lithium (batteries), and silicon (electronics and solar panels). Through our journey we will discover why these elements are so useful for transferring energy, and why plausible alternatives are so hard to come by.
What is a solar panel? On a basic level these instruments are very simple to understand: the sun emits energy; solar panels capture that energy somehow and convert it into electricity. Unfortunately, the physics of how these incredible devices work is much more complicated than that, and we’ll only be able to scratch the surface. In this one week course, we will explore introductory physics topics such as work, power and conservation of energy through a lens of light and electric charge. We will then move into examining some of the solid-state properties of solar panels that allow them to create a flow of electrons when they are hit by sunlight. Finally, we will use the knowledge we have gained to hypothesize about how effective a solar panel would be in a circuit compared to other energy sources.
Energy is not a typical commodity. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can never be created or destroyed; it can only be transferred from one place to another. This knowledge is incredibly useful for scientists and engineers, but it makes the business of selling energy very tricky. This course will analyze how energy is traded through a lens of decision-making processes by individual consumers, huge corporations, and entrepreneurial enterprises. We will analyze America’s current energy infrastructure, along with her place in the global market for oil. And then we will examine how individual decisions about household solar-panels and electric vehicles create potential uncertainties in a market that has been extremely constant for more than half a century.
The main purpose of this final, political science course is for students to use the knowledge they’ve learned over the past 4 weeks to think critically about major problems in our energy system and what might be done to combat those problems. Students will either participate in one of the week’s topical energy debates, or they will give a group presentation on energy practices in countries other than the U.S. Some of the topics for the debate may include: weighing the harmful effects of climate change against the harmful effects of mining for silicon, using hydroelectric dams in diverse ecosystems, a carbon tax, and the use of subsidies for solar panels. Students who choose to do a PowerPoint will report on some aspect of the current energy economies in either Germany, India or China. Participants will likely realize by the end of the course that there are no easy solutions to energy problems.