It's Time to Shine the Spotlight on Energy Education

January 22, 2012

Advances in the energy sector these days must clear multiple hurdles; in particular, they must meet global needs witShout compromising national security, degrading the environment, or impinging on the economy. But unfortunately, innovation in the large-scale energy field still seems to plod along through the invention of technologies designed to achieve singular purposes. Isn't it time for this country's colleges to take significant steps toward developing a new approach to energy education?

Today, for the most part, higher education for students interested in energy lacks the cross-disciplinary curriculum that they critically need, and so we propose the adoption of energy departments on college campuses, departments that would tie seemingly disconnected fields of the sector together. An army of renaissance women and men would emerge who would over time make up a cutting-edge labor force able to understand and articulate not just the science and business of energy but the political, technical, and social issues involved in finding solutions to our energy needs.

Across the country, undergraduates are being ushered through an outdated and compartmentalized system in which the education has not kept up with scientific advances. Energy is poorly defined at institutions of higher education, appearing to be an ambiguous professional pursuit or a subset of umbrella departments such as petroleum engineering or geosciences, which tackle only a single slice of the energy pie. Students must typically choose to enroll in a single department where they are exposed to narrow perspectives of the energy sector and do not obtain a comprehensive understanding of what lies ahead.

For example, engineering departments offer courses in technical problem solving, political scientists focus on the theory of governance, policy students learn to craft legislation, economists analyze what motivates personal energy choices, and communication majors acquire the skills to translate complex language. At the same time, the biologists discuss environmental impacts, and sociologists develop the tools to influence behavior. And so on. But each discipline acts as if its work occurs in isolation from the other fields. Thus, in the process of earning a single specialized degree, students are limited in their exposure to other related fields. Under this paradigm, graduates do not leave with a comprehensive understanding of energy, and this traditional model retards progress in an increasingly globalized world.

Consider the typical petroleum engineer: His career will be deeply affected by policy and economics, yet we do not train him to participate in the process governing his actions. Meanwhile, policy makers and economists are generally educated about drilling by lobbyists and special-interest groups in isolation. Thus what we have is a broken system that limits meaningful contact among those with the greatest expertise in each area.

But there is some good news on the horizon. Over the past decade, many top-tier universities, including our own, have been moving toward more interdisciplinary certificate programs, specializations, and degrees where the arts and sciences converge.

For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of British Columbia have all developed courses or degrees in response to the changing energy landscape. Some are focused on energy, some are multidisciplinary, some are graduate, and some are undergraduate. It's clearly time to build on those efforts and promote the development of robust academic departments of energy that would enable students to engage with a vast array of related topics, from sustainable agriculture to international security.

Such departments would bring professors together from a variety of disciplines across campus to develop an organized energy curriculum. No longer would economics and engineering advances be isolated from each other. They would be hubs for a variety of areas tackling theoretical and practical questions that involve subjects like consumption, smart grids, renewables, waste, and more.

Energy departments would highlight history and the complex challenges ahead, while emphasizing social, economic, and political environments domestically and abroad. Graduates entering the work force with such interdisciplinary skills would be ideally suited for leadership positions with strategic responsibilities, armed with a firm grasp of the challenges ahead and the experience to act as truly global citizens.

Michael E. Webber is associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Sheril R. Kirshenbaum is a research associate at the center and the author of two books on science.