Developing an Energy Science curriculum at UH Hilo

Arizona State University is a potential partner for UH Hilo in developing energy science curriculum.

By Philippe Binder, Professor of Physics.

Philippe Binder
Philippe Binder

“Sustainability” is a property of social and biological systems that can remain active and functioning for long periods of time without depleting their resources or causing damage to their surroundings.

This concept has become more widely recognized in recent times. A big landmark was The Limits to Growth, a report on simulations of global population, environment and resources from the early 1970s showing a serious collapse of human population and standard of living, unless measures like a reduction in fertility rate and better care of the environment were adopted.

In the late 1980s, Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report, produced by the United Nations) discussed development and environment as closely related issues, and presented a blueprint for sustainable development.

At present time in time, credible threats exist to our way of life: climate change, rising ocean levels, species extinctions, mercury and pesticides everywhere, and the foreseeable depletion of fossil fuels and quite a few rare minerals used in technological applications.

But in addition to these global problems, there are issues and situations of local concern. We live in a very isolated island with great challenges and opportunities. Among the first, very few nonrenewable resources (we have no fossil fuels), large transportation costs and the possibility of many natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts…). Among the latter, lots of surface to raise crops and the possibility of wind, solar, ocean-based and geothermal energy.

It is with the latter motivation that I was asked to develop the curriculum for an Energy Science certificate at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Our state wants to switch entirely to renewable energy generation by 2045. UH campuses are under pressure to become more energy efficient and conduct energy audits in a much shorter time frame.

Arizona State University

As part of energy curriculum development, I spent last spring break at the Arizona State University campus, as we have a potential partner there. That campus has both an Institute of Sustainability and a School of Sustainability—the former focusing on research, and the second on teaching.

During that week I met with numerous faculty members and administrators and visited some of their lab facilities. ASU is a huge campus, both in terms of physical space and number of students (around 80,000). There is strength in numbers: the school has faculty with an appointment in sustainability, but also affiliate faculty from engineering, business, law, geography and the biosciences that gives it a very diverse flavor. The same can be said for the institute.

During my week at ASU, I was able to visit one of the largest algae research facilities in the country. I learned that extracting energy from the sun using algae is not economically viable, but if the algae are used for something additional (such as producing medicinal compounds) the situation is more attractive. I also visited a lab where they are using bacteria to extract electrical energy out of waste.

On the curricular side, I talked to the people who are teaching similar courses to those we are starting to offer at UH Hilo. I gained many insights on how to conduct the courses and what material to include. I did find out they do not have a dedicated energy lab course as we are planning—making it both a challenge and an opportunity for us.

I returned from ASU with a renewed sense of confidence in the future of our own program, and full of ideas and enthusiasm. Hopefully some of you will decide to take our courses (they will be listed under the ENGR alpha).

Philippe Binder is a professor of physics at UH Hilo and heads development of an Energy Science Program at the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management. His research interests include nonlinear dynamics, statistical mechanics, complex systems, time series analysis, theory of computation, biologically-inspired physics, and information processing by nonlinear systems—learn more.