College Powers Up for Renewable Energy Studies
The need to achieve energy independence and develop clean and affordable renewable energy sources has been a rallying cry here in the United States for decades. The lingering effects of the global recession and political instability in the Middle East have only underscored these concerns. Mason physics professor Robert Ehrlich is leading efforts in the College of Science to develop renewable energy studies and is writing a new textbook that will be suitable for energy programs across the country.
Ehrlich came to Mason in 1977. He has done physics research, worked to improve physics education, and been a champion for communicating science to the public. Ehrlich began the work of bringing renewable energy studies to the university three years ago. He says that he is coming to the end of his teaching career and that renewable energy is a good fit for him and Mason.
However, for a man talking of retiring, he shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to writing the textbook, he maintains the Renewable Energy Valuation and Understanding Project, a website that he started in 2009 “to be the most essential web-based source of information for teachers, students, and others interested in renewable energy education.” And he recently sent a letter of inquiry to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation seeking seed money to organize a group of techno-environmental educators who can work together to safeguard the environment with an understanding of balancing economics with environmental concerns.
Ehrlich sees a growing need for renewable energy education and not just from a scientific approach. He explains that the discussion needs to include public policy, economics, and law. Mason’s location near the federal government and high-tech industries means that there will be a growing need for professionals with this type of education. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy often fund many internship opportunities at many sites around the nation, especially in the Washington, D.C., area.
Currently, a renewable energy minor is offered through the college’s School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences that is designed for students seeking education for careers in renewable energy or as preparation for graduate work. Students can also enroll in Mason’s master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies program and seek a concentration in energy and sustainability studies. This program is ideal for students who are interested in pursuing careers in energy and environmentally related applications in the law, national and international policy, government, print and media journalism, public and social service, teaching, advanced graduate studies, ethics, business, and basic and applied research.
Whether to stick with the current structure or to expand to a full degree program in renewable energy at the university is an issue that will be contingent on the growth of the current offerings and staffing. Ehrlich hopes that the growth of this program will mirror the need in the job market, which appears likely to be very strong in the future. He says that currently “only five percent of schools in the nation have energy-related programs.” There’s a growing need for more, and Mason has a chance to become a leader.
This article appeared in the spring 2012 issue of Periodic Elements, the College of Science newsletter.
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