Revamping the energy curriculum

Rui Shi

As the Republican primary rages on, the polarization of the political scene is as evident as ever. From health care to the tax code, Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to come together on any important issue. One such issue is the future of American energy. But the public’s perception of energy remains distorted — a problem that the Republican candidates have done little to alleviate. There is a need to revamp our understanding of energy, starting at the university level.

The energy field has been moving forward at a rapid pace as the world races to find alternatives to fossil fuels. However, these advances must clear a variety of hurdles in the current political environment. Innovations must be environmentally friendly, economically viable and politically uncontroversial. With these limitations, the current approach to energy education is lacking and must find a way to catch up with recent developments.

The rigid undergraduate curriculum in today’s universities makes it hard for students to venture outside of their majors. Students who wish to go into the energy field usually choose one of a few narrow areas of study such as petroleum or chemical engineering. These majors offer the technical know-how to solve a very specific set of problems that encompass only a small portion of the energy sector. It’s clear that traditional energy studies do not provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the ever-expanding sector.

The compartmentalization of curricula has forced students to specialize in certain areas, and this specialization undermines students’ abilities to undertake a multidisciplinary course of study.

The creation of an interdisciplinary energy curriculum would greatly aid in the push to modernize energy studies. A single energy department would help bring connected fields together under the same roof. For example, an engineering class might offer a student the technical knowledge he or she needs to tackle a domain-specific problem; a government class might provide the student with an understanding of government policy; a biology class might help the student understand the environmental impact of certain practices; and an economics class might solidify the student’s understanding of the market forces that drive innovation.

Like any other interdisciplinary program, a unified energy department would have to overcome major hurdles. All of the involved colleges would have to wade through the logistical mess of creating a curriculum. And funding is always an issue in determining whether such a program is worth pursuing. However, in an economy desperate for viable sources of alternative energy, a comprehensive energy major would equip students to solve this problem.

UT is among several research universities that have moved toward a unified energy program. The Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy (CIEEP) has brought together faculty from the College of Engineering, the Jackson School of Geosciences and the LBJ School of Public Affairs to collaborate on developing solutions to current energy problems. The CIEEP has several graduate-level programs that deal with energy research in an interdisciplinary way.

Another resource for students interested in the energy sector is UT’s Energy Institute. Composed of several affiliated colleges, the institute is uniquely positioned to address complex problems through research. The institute’s mission also includes the development of certificate and degree programs across disciplines.

These efforts represent an excellent start by UT in the direction of a unified energy curriculum. Expanding programs such as CIEEP and the Energy Institute to undergraduates would move UT beyond the starting line and into a position of innovative national leadership.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.