In the fall semester of 2015, a group of U.S. Naval Academy professors collaborated to offer a unique new approach to teaching energy policy.
The elective brought together professors from Economics, Oceanography, Political Science, and Mechanical Engineering to address the issue of Energy Security. It was the first course at the Naval Academy to span three academic divisions and four different academic departments.
A total of sixty-eight midshipmen took the class, meeting both as a large group for overview lectures on topics, and in discipline specific sections for deeper discussions related to the midshipmen’s major.
“Our goal was to educate upper-level midshipmen with a high-level view of energy analysis, policy, and security, and in particular, to show how energy issues affect critical missions of the U.S. military and U.S. national security,” said mechanical engineering professor and Department Chair Karen Flack, who organized the effort.
The course was divided in four major sections: Overview and Introduction, Fossil Fuels, Nuclear Power, and Renewable Energy. Specific topics included underlying energy science, best estimates of energy supplies and current usage profiles, energy policy trends, current and developing energy technologies, the economics of energy development and usage, and the competing interests and worldviews that drive the energy policy debates.
“Underlying all these topics was the question, ‘how do innovation, policy, technology, and economics of energy affect the ability of the U.S. military to successfully and efficiently succeed in its various missions?’” said Flack.
The professors who taught the course knew that teaching a course with this many moving parts was going to be a challenge, but they believed the rewards to the students were well worth the extra effort.
“Energy security is an inherently interdisciplinary issue and demands an interdisciplinary approach,” said political science Professor Howard Ernst, who was one of the course’s co-instructors. “This was the central vision that we all shared. Our objective was to design a course around this central idea. The challenge was to make sure the course was better than the sum of its parts.”
To help achieve this synergy, the professors decided to divide the students into interdisciplinary teams that worked on assignments related to the energy analysis of a specific country, ranging from Pakistan to Korea to France.
“The small teams, what we called core learning groups, forced the students to work across disciplines and to gain a holistic understanding of the energy security issues in their assigned countries,” said Professor Kurtis Swope, Economics Department chair and co-instructor of the course.
The course was also designed to expose students to high-level leaders in the energy security field. To achieve this end, prominent guest speakers included Marine Col. Jim Caley, director of the Marine Expeditionary Energy Office; Mr. Paul Kolbe, director of international security affairs for British Petroleum; and Assistant Secretary of Navy for Energy and Installations Dennis McGinn. Assistant Professor Joe Smith, co-instructor of the course from the Oceanography Department, organized a day-long session with energy security leaders at the Department of State.
“It was important for us to go beyond classroom discussions and expose our students to energy leaders who address these issues on a daily basis,” said Smith. “Our partners in the Pentagon and State Department were incredibly generous with their time.”
The final culmination of the course was a student-led poster presentation to faculty and Navy energy leaders.
“While the course took months of planning and long hours to implement, it was a tremendous success. The students gained insights that they could not have gained in the traditional single discipline class,” said Associate Professor Patrick Caton a co-instructor of the course from the Mechanical Engineering Department. “As a faculty member, I was energized by the collaborative experience and look forward to being part of the team again in the fall of 2016.”