Initial Publication Date: July 24, 2015

Multidisciplinary Approaches to Energy in the Classroom

JEFFREY B. JACQUET ( is an assistant professor and TIMOTHY J. NICHOLS ( is a professor in the department of Sociology and Rural Studies at South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota. Nichols is also dean of the Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College.

Weighing costs and benefits of energy produced via hydraulic fracturing requires an understanding of the technical nature of the nation's energy system, energy alternatives, and social and economic energy issues locally and globally. Yet many academic offerings in energy are narrowly discipline-specific. South Dakota State University is offering multidisciplinary undergraduate courses to introduce students to complex issues related to not only fracking but the portfolio of energy types and uses used by the US and beyond.

This article will detail an honors colloquium called Energy: Present Realities, Future Possibilities. An annual course in the sociology program called Energy, Environment, and Society draws from the honors colloquium.


The honors colloquium was designed and taught by a team of faculty, drawing on multidisciplinary perspectives and active learning pedagogies, challenging students to think critically and creatively about issues of energy policy and potential solutions. Students were expected to achieve these learning outcomes:

  1. Explain foundational scientific concepts regarding energy
  2. Critically evaluate multiple sources of energy
  3. Discuss economic, social, and policy dimensions of energy in the 21st century
  4. Articulate an understanding of an energy portfolio, and propose, present and defend an energy portfolio for the future


The course was organized around these outcomes, and began with an introduction to foundational concepts such as physics, energy literacy, and the energy grid. We then examined current issues relating to sources of energy, including: (1) fossil fuels, including a large portion dedicated to fracking; (2) biofuels; (3) nuclear; (4) solar; and (5) renewables (wind and hydro-electric energy). Additional units focused on social, economic, policy, and environmental considerations. Students worked in teams on a multi-layered energy portfolio project. Culminating activities included an energy town hall meeting and team presentations of the energy portfolio projects.

Faculty and Students

Students came from diverse backgrounds and academic majors, with some pursuing SDSU's minor in Sustainable Energy Systems. Some had undergraduate research experience, experience selling corn to ethanol plants, or experience working at ethanol plants, while others had a more casual interest in the topic. All were students in SDSU's Fishback Honors College.

The honors college dean (a sociologist) served as facilitator, but course content was delivered by expert faculty including electrical and mechanical engineers, agronomists, scientists, a microbiologist, a nuclear physicist, an economist, and a natural resource sociologist. Many were engaged in leading edge research related to energy issues, though most had not previously collaborated with one another.

This was everyone's first opportunity to share expertise in a multidisciplinary undergraduate energy course.

Field Trips and Guest Speakers

Instructors built a series of field trips into the course, including visits to photovoltaic laboratories, an ethanol processing plant, ethanol research laboratories, a private wind-energy tower and community wind farm, and a combined-cycle, natural gas generation facility. Additionally, guest speakers brought different perspectives on energy. These included the director of the US Navy's "Great Green Fleet," an Extension Energy Specialist, an Energy Life Cycle Analysis researcher, and a lawyer with the Environmental Law and Policy Center.


Assessment included quizzes and essay exams, a weekly student-led discussion of energy "news items," personal energy audits, and calculating individual and societal-level approaches to energy conservation.

The course culminated in a town hall exercise. Students argued proposed energy development projects before a mock city council. Roles included environmental and agricultural interests, local energy developers, large multi-national corporations,social service agencies, school and university officials, investors, and bankers. Each constituency made its case before the council and responded to the councilors' questions. In the end, the council debated and came to resolution for energy development in their community.

The largest assessment was a semester-long energy portfolio project. Three six-student teams acted as consultants for a country's energy future. Over three stages of the portfolio development, students

  1. characterized the present energy source and consumption mix, and identified problematic energy issues;
  2. presented a recommendation for their country's ideal energy mix for 20 years in the future, justifying their recommendations socially, economically, and environmentally; and
  3. made public policy recommendations to achieve the desired energy portfolio outcomes.

Feedback, Lessons Learned and Future Recommendations

Feedback on the course was positive. The majority of students anonymously described the course as "their favorite" or "one of the best" courses at SDSU. Participating faculty — who volunteered their time to the course outside of existing teaching obligations — were also extremely positive about the course.

The wide range of expertise represented among the faculty and the broad range of energy sources and topics investigated clearly delivered to the students a depth and breadth of energy understanding not possible in other academic contexts. Fracking emerged as one of the most important, impassioned, and debated components of the course; and students were able to debate costs and benefits against a wide range of energy alternatives and social, economic, and policy realities.

Challenges included adequately covering the many complex issues in relatively short periods of time. Faculty members' presentations could have been more cohesively integrated and organized. The complex nature of the energy portfolio presentations left some students needing stronger direction and feedback. Finally, faculty involvement will be difficult to sustain without structural changes to their workload assignments.


The Energy: Present Realities, Future Possibilities honors colloquium at SDSU represents an innovative, engaging multidisciplinary examination of energy today — situating fracking within a holistic understanding of energy, along with all of its complexity and controversy. Key strengths of the course included a diverse mix of students and contributing faculty, integration of active learning pedagogies such as team exercises and field trips to nearby energy development facilities, and a wide range of assessment strategies. The course's inclusion of oftentimes conflicting perspectives from engineering and technology, biological, physical and environmental sciences, economics, sociology, public policy, and agriculture made for a challenging, memorable, andimpactful learning experience that helped prepare students for some of the critical work and decisions they will need to make around energy in the future.