EMS undergrads research energy, explore regions of Europe through science course

Leah Laughlin has always been fascinated by the culture and way of life of Denmark. This year, she had the opportunity to not only visit the Scandinavian country but also learn about its energy sector through a College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) interdisciplinary research course.

EMS’ Center for Advanced Undergraduate Study and Experience (CAUSE) courses are designed to promote undergraduate research and study abroad. CAUSE courses focus on the political, economic and physical environment of a selected country or area.

Through the annual course, students learn how to form scientific hypotheses, develop research projects, collect and analyze data, summarize results and present research findings.

In this year’s CAUSE course, students were charged with exploring and defining key factors contributing to the evolution of energy choices in a variety of countries and, in particular, their efforts toward a sustainable energy future.

The students traveled to Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, countries that they researched during the spring 2015 semester to learn about their culture, government and energy sector.

Over a 14-day period in May, they visited both traditional energy sites, such as oil and gas fields, and sustainable energy sites, such as wind, hydro and geothermal, which Jonathan Mathews, associate professor and energy and mineral engineering, said is a result of each nation’s differences in location, population, abundance and access to the resources.

“Exposing students to multiple countries and different energy sources enables them to see and rationalize why these significant differences exist,” he said. Mathews instructs the course with Derek Elsworth and Semih Esser, both professors of energy and geo-environmental engineering.

Laughlin, a junior majoring in energy business and finance, was impressed by the friendly nature of the people who they met during their travels.

“One of the things that surprised me was the ‘tourist-friendly’ nature of the power plants we visited. The tour guides were highly knowledgeable and personable, and most of the plants were designed to welcome the public – especially the ones in Iceland and Denmark.

The students formed small groups, and each group selected a specific energy topic to investigate.

Laughlin and her team narrowed their research focus to wind energy and are exploring why Denmark has been successful in its wind strategy.

According to Denmark’s official website, more than 40 percent of their energy supply comes from wind power. In the United States, the Department of Energy reports that only 5 percent of its demand is met by wind.

 “We’re focusing on some of the barriers to entering the wind market. We are also looking at the factors driving the development of wind energy in the U.S., and we are comparing data from the Denmark and the U.S.,” said Laughlin.

Other students took a strong interest in Denmark’s energy sector as well.

Thomas Stephens, a junior studying environmental systems engineering, and his team are analyzing district heating, a process in which leftover heat from power plants is recycled to warm homes.

“Approximately 55 percent of homes in Demark use district heating, and we’re trying to understand whether or not something similar could be applied in the United States. We’re analyzing the efficiency numbers from both countries,” Stephens said.

The students thought that the countries selected were perfect for their class research projects because the region visited offered a multitude of research topics that would be difficult to squeeze into a two-week period in other locations. And that’s exactly why the course instructors chose this location.

“The area we toured is a compact region that offers unique energy methods,” said Elsworth. “This course provides a setting for students to learn that’s out of the usual classroom setting.”

Elsworth hoped that the students had a well-rounded experience aside from just their research.

“I want them to develop an appreciation of other cultures and the beauty of each country,” he said. “I want the students to return from the trip with a new worldview, and to have potentially made long-lasting friendships in the process.”

Both Laughlin and Stephens lauded the benefits gained through the experience.

Laughlin valued the chance to travel to different countries and experience their energy technologies first-hand.

“I really appreciated being able to visit all of the energy sites and get a first-person view of what takes place at these sites. The trip provided me with a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will benefit me in my work after I graduate from Penn State,” she said.

Stephens agreed and highlighted the positive effects that the research experience has had on him.

“Energy is an interesting sector, and it’s been very valuable for me to take something I’m interested in and learn how to use my time effectively to conduct research, which is a skill I will need after I graduate,” said Stephens. “The aim of the course is to get undergraduate students involved in collaborative research, and I think it has succeeded.”

At the end of the fall 2015 semester, students presented their research through approximately thirty-minute presentations to the other students and faculty.

The CAUSE 2016 course, “Glacier-Wetland Systems of the Americas,” will travel to two distinctly different landscapes (Peru in May and Alaska in August) where students will be able to explore the impact of climate change and glacial recession on both the surrounding ecosystems and the communities that rely on glacial meltwater-supported streams. Students will have the opportunity to explore both the societal impacts of climate change and participate in fieldwork in the glacial-wetland systems of each region. For more information on CAUSE, visit http://www.ems.psu.edu/CAUSE.

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Last Updated February 04, 2016