Science / Technology and Health

Energy and Society

Written by Annie Beckmann

November 11, 2014

Campus solar panels

New Core course examines complex issues related to global warming.

Global warming is the most significant issue of our time, Paul Fontana says with no equivocation. That's a big reason why he's passionate about teaching his Energy and Society course.

Among the learning outcomes of the class, students "evaluate current and future energy sources based on their technological, economic and environmental merits and limitations," says Fontana.  The goal is for students to emerge as well-informed participants in the civic discussion about the local, national and global energy future.

How he accomplishes this involves an inventive approach. For the first three to four weeks, he teaches basic physics-how we get, process and use energy in its various forms. That increases technical literacy and gives students the vocabulary and tools to interpret what they hear or see in the media.

Tech literacy also makes it easier for students to investigate a particular source of energy-coal, natural gas or other fossil fuels, biofuel, solar, wind, water, electricity or nuclear power. They break into teams of two or three and explore the pros and cons of extracting a particular form of energy, the effect on the environment, efficiency and state or national policies.

"It's an opportunity for students to pick what they're excited about and become critical thinkers on that energy topic," Fontana says. Each team writes a paper, presents findings and leads a class discussion.

All students are called upon to be vigilant about current events and submit energy-related news articles weekly, some of which are discussed in class.  

There's a civic action component as well. After consulting with Fontana about a proposed action related to current public energy policy, each student writes to an elected official or local newspaper or might conduct a public awareness campaign on a particular topic. He offers examples to get them thinking, including: expansion of oil transport and export through Washington state; expedited licensing and loan guarantees for new nuclear energy facilities; capping, regulating or taxing carbon emissions; and divestment in fossil fuels by the university.

"These are complex issues, with no simple answers," says Fontana, "but this class is a good context to have those conversations."