Students travel 'down under' to explore New Zealand’s energy technologies

Last May, a group of 12 undergraduate students embarked on a 14-day research expedition across New Zealand exploring the country’s energy technologies and this past December wrapped up the course with group presentations of their final projects.

The travel to New Zealand was part of the course “The ‘Energy’ New Deal – Down Under,” an interdisciplinary research course sponsored by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ (EMS) Center for Advanced Undergraduate Study and Experience (CAUSE).

The two-semester CAUSE courses, open to juniors and seniors in the social sciences, natural sciences and engineering, also include a Maymester travel component that provides “real world experiences” for students – a chance to leave the classroom behind and spend time tackling a topic of contemporary importance in the field.

“My understanding of the energy recovery, transformation, and utilization has appreciatively evolved after exploring first-hand the energy industry in New Zealand,” said Caleb Voithofer, senior in geography.

Students touring geothemal drilling site

Geothermal drilling site at Wairakei, NZ. (L to R) Erik Blekht, GNS guide, Maori community representative, Emily Phipps, Jonathan Mathews, Alyssa Bruner, Carly Hinton, Caleb Voithofer, Gabrielle Reese, Jake Simon, and Derek Elsworth.

Image: Jonathan Mathews

CAUSE 2013 concentrated on the significant role that energy resources have played in the evolution of the energy economies of both the Unites States and New Zealand. “Progress” to an industrial economy has relied heavily on the availability of energy to spur the development of industry. Economic welfare and quality of life depend on energy choices: fossil fuels, bridging energy technologies, and the transformation to sustainable energy resources. Students were tasked to examine how future development will be affected by constraints on natural resources, contemporary views of environmental protection, new trends in green engineering, and the industrial ecology of energy and material flows. 

During the spring 2013 semester, students met weekly to study the energy and development history of the two countries and to formulate a research question that could be answered though research and field work in New Zealand. Students documented their findings through papers, briefings, presentations, travel dispatches, and illustrated travel journals, and at the end of the fall 2013 semester culminated the coursework in a final project, which they presented to colleagues and friends.

Student briefing group on energy topic

Kate Maisel briefing students on the Taranaki-Stratford onshore oil field at a nearby stop in New Plymouth, NZ. (L to R) Jake Simon, Sri Pisupati, Kate Maisel, Gabrielle Reese, and Caleb Voithofer.

Image: Jonathan Mathews

The students departed the United States on May 5 and arrived on May 7 in Auckland, New Zealand to start their tour. For 14 days they toured both the north and south islands and along the way met with government and industry officials and visited various types of energy sites, including wind farms, coal mines, oil fields, gas fields, power stations, hydropower and geothermal plants.

Students embracing the wind at wind farm

Wind-blown exuberance at Tararua wind farm near Palmerston North, NZ. Carly Hinton and Jake Simon.

Image: Jonathan Mathews

Josh Carey, senior in energy engineering, said both the course format and the chance to collaborate with other students was beneficial to him.

“I gained two things in particular from taking this course. First would be the broad understanding of energy in general. At the beginning of the course, before the trip, we researched and gave presentations on all types of energy, both renewable and non-renewable,” he said.

“It really helped us learn about various energy sources and also improved our communication skills. That gave a good base going into the trip and helped us focus on what to look for when we visited the energy sites in New Zealand.

Second, would be the interactions with my classmates. I would say that I gained many best friends through this course, including the professors. We had a great time and l have lots of great memories.”

Jake Simon, a junior with a double major in meteorology and geography, echoed that sentiment.

“With a small group of students in the class you get to know everyone. Plus, this is the first time that I had one-on-one interactions with professors; I had the opportunity to interact with them in the classroom, outside of the classroom, and in the field. I really think that experience helped me grow as a student.”

Alexander Tankou, a senior majoring in energy engineering, said “The whole trip was fantastic! We all had a great experience. It was the first time I had the opportunity to visit a geothermal plant. Each student was tasked with leading a discussion on a specific energy topic – there we were sitting in the hot geothermal pools discussing geothermal energy – it was amazing!

The beauty of New Zealand, the setting for the “Lord of the Rings” movies among others, was not lost on the students.

Carly Hinton, junior in environmental systems engineering, said “The best thing we got to see beyond all of the really cool site visits was the dramatic landscape of New Zealand. Driving down the coastal highway and seeing a snow-capped volcano on your left and the beach with surfers to your right was probably was my favorite scenic memory of the trip.”

Mount Taranaki

Mount Taranaki, a Fuji-style stratovolcano near New Plymouth, NZ.

Image: Jonathan Mathews

CAUSE 2013 was co-taught by Derek Elsworth and Semih Eser, both professors of energy and geo-environmental engineering, and Jonathan Mathews, associate professor of energy and mineral engineering, all faculty in EMS’ John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering.

All three professors thoroughly enjoyed teaching this course. Elsworth said, "This is the icing on the cake in teaching – traveling with a bunch of bright and enthusiastic barely-twenty-somethings is really a lot of fun – I recommend it!”

The CAUSE 2014 course, “Ridge to Reef: Terrestrial Effects on the Near-Shore Marine Realm,” will travel to the Caribbean during Maymester.  For more information on CAUSE visit http://www.ems.psu.edu/CAUSE online.

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Last Updated January 28, 2014