P320: Powering the planet: Exploring renewable energy in an interdisciplinary first-year seminar
In a first-year studies course at Centre College, students investigated conventional and alternative energy technologies for providing electricity to Earth’s seven billion people. Class meeting time during the three-week January term was divided into modules devoted to a particular technology: nuclear power, wind power, hydroelectricity, biomass, and solar power. Students delivered oral presentations explaining the operational principles behind each of the major fossil fuel alternatives, using elements of chemistry, physics, biology, and engineering. Back-of-the-envelope calculations were used to estimate the global capacity, land use requirements, and cost to power the planet using each fossil fuel alternative. Hands-on activities were performed in groups and included wind turbine design, synthesis of biodiesel from waste fryer oil, and assembly of dye-sensitized solar cells. The course culminated in an independent proposal for powering a chosen geographic unit with consideration of land use and resource availability. Overall, students reported that this course expanded their thinking on about a topic of global impact that crosses disciplinary barriers.