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Environmental Physics (“If I had a billion dollars”)

Posted by Arjendu on June 13, 2010

The year is done at Carleton,  the class of 2010 launched on their varied and interesting paths, and as I start to transition to the summer and my new life, a record for future reference of some thoughts on my first (and what will be my last for a few years) pass at the Environmental Physics course I taught this term.

We started this course a few years ago. When I say ‘we’ I mean that it was started by Joel Weisberg, as prototypical a liberal arts college scientist as you can imagine. He had the enthusiastic support of the Department, and of the Environmental Studies department at Carleton, and it was also supported with some funds from CISMI-HHMI.  I was pleased when it landed in my lap this year (although the timing was pretty terrible — I had it at the same time as my other new prep, Advanced Electricity and Magnetism). When I started thinking about how I would tinker with it, it became quickly clear that it one excellent way to do it was to focus on alternative energy sources.

This is how I structured this time’s run-through: a quick look at the relevant physics ideas of energy, electricity and magnetism, and thermodynamics, before focusing in on different ways of generating energy. I made very sure that we looked well beyond the physics of energy generation to consider environmental impact, and practical aspects including the human context. For that second section I was lucky enough to work with three guest lecturers: David Chapman (an intense committed geophysicist who was visiting the Geology Department at Carleton as a distinguished senior visitor and got shanghaied by my students into giving a lecture about his research on borehole temperature profiles, which are an alternate record of temperature changes over the last 500 years), J. Drake Hamilton of Fresh Energy on policy issues, and our very own Aaron Swoboda on how to think about transportation and energy issues. We finished with a group project where each group had to present on the energy source in which they would advocate investing; the class was then asked to divvy up a hypothetical $100 million between these various sources based on their own research as well as the persuasiveness of their classmates. I improvised this group project a couple of weeks into the course, and it worked: The students had to explain various different physics ideas to each other, ranging from nuclear power, through wind power, geothermal energy and solar power, had to understand what the practical (economic, governmental, engineering, etc) concerns were as well, and not least, had to be clear and persuasive about their thinking.

What would I do different in the future? Based on the feedback I got I would: (1) Make more clear that my version focuses on energy issues (with a nod to climate change issues) so there’s no confusion, (2) re-think my blitz through electricity and magnetism, (3) possibly focus the entire course on the last project, and have the final presentation a public debate on energy options. (Perhaps this could be by invitation only, but the idea is to raise the stakes slightly by asking the students to talk to an audience outside the class so they can’t rest on assumptions about what is known and what isn’t. That is the best way I know to see if someone truly understands a physics idea.)

I had a very interesting and rewarding time teaching the course, and given the student reactions, think that this course should stay on the books for a long time. And for the record, this is how the students split their hypothetical $1,900,000,000 (there were 19 students in the course) in research and development funds: 950 for Geothermal energy (exactly half), 460 for wind power, 440 for nuclear energy, and 50 for solar energy (almost none of this last for photovoltaics, but I didn’t ask them to separate it out). There were 5 graduating geology seniors in the course, which probably influenced the numbers significantly.

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