Hard Choices

gas pump with ethanol caption caption embedded

We all know about rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And we know it's a problem: most researchers link carbon dioxide emissions with global warming. But as an industrialized society, can we make energy choices that will help reduce carbon dioxide levels? What are the costs and consequences of those choices?

Tough questions to tackle. Undaunted, 15 undergraduates—engineering, science, and social science majors—spent the year 2000 exploring solutions.

Their research began with the start of a two-semester seminar called "CAUSE 2000: Energy Choices for the Millennium." The problem-based seminar, funded by the Center for Advanced Undergraduate Study and Experience (CAUSE), is about "students taking the lead in defining issues," says Semih Eser, one of the instructors.

With Eser and co-instructor Derek Elsworth as their guides, the CAUSE 2000 students took a hard look at the economic, environmental, political, and technological factors that will govern our energy choices in the coming years.

"The students were all about renewable sources of energy," says Elsworth. He and Eser—who describe themselves as "conventional energy types"—made sure the students were grounded in the basics of fossil fuels like coal, petroleum, and natural gas before they explored "renewables" like solar, wind, and geothermal. "We wanted them to look at the positives and negatives of all different kinds of energy sources," Elsworth explains.

At first, Elsworth and Eser broke the class into four energy-supply groups—coal, nuclear, renewable, and petroleum and natural gas. But the students had a different idea. "We cancelled those groups and made our own based on geographic regions—Northeast, Northwest-macro, Northwest-micro, and Southwest," says CAUSE student Kate Darby, a senior in chemical engineering. Incorporating the energy-supply idea, each group studied energy use in one region and presented analyses to the rest of the class during the first semester of the seminar.

While most of the students mined for data in the library and on the Internet, the highlight of the seminar—and the focus of all CAUSE-funded courses—was a group field trip designed to complement the classroom work.

Because each group was studying a different part of the country, it only made sense that they wanted to visit their respective regions. But the idea didn't go over well with the instructors. "This is a student-shaped class, but as arbitrators, we did need to crack the whip a few times," Elsworth says, laughing. Instead of traveling in separate groups around the country, the entire class decided to take a two-week "energy tour" of the western United States during the break between semesters.

Last Updated May 01, 2000