Imagining oil futures: Cultivating an integrative and interdisciplinary understanding of the impacts of our energy choices
In this case study, I describe a successful model for engaging students in energy and environmental issues and improving their quantitative, scientific and information literacy skills through an interdisciplinary research methods course. The course – "Interdisciplinary Inquiry: Oil Futures” - uses understanding the impacts of our societal dependence on petroleum as an energy and materials source as a lens for exploring our energy choices, while cultivating literacy regarding ecological, economic and policy dimensions of our past and future choices. I use an environmental justice framing for the course, pacing the introduction of concepts and skills to foster emergence of the students' own interests in resonance with the course themes. I developed several modules to convey core concepts and develop key skills, and evaluated their overall effectiveness in achieving the course learning objectives. I used content analyses of student responses (n= 66) to exercises at the start and end of the course to assess, and refine, the content and delivery of the course, and pre-/post-surveys (n= 126) to assess student knowledge of issues and concepts central to the course. Students in a subsequent class sent email surveys to students from prior classes (n=40) to explore whether there were any lasting impacts of the course on students' worldviews. Although the response rate was strong (n=19), students most interested by the course may have been more likely to respond.
Most students began the course with low awareness of energy issues or ecological concepts, and often with a great deal of confusion about the nature – and validity – of climate change. By the conclusion of the course, all could articulate the importance of energy issues in local, regional, national and international policy and in their personal decision-making. Students improved markedly in their ability to interpret quantitative information shown in the popular press, as well as in skills related to information literacy in understanding scientific questions. In addition, follow up surveys verified lasting impact of the course on the worldview of students 1-2 years post-course. In answers to open response questions, students reported discussing many themes - energy issues, climate change, land use planning, and ecotoxicology - from the course over the dinner table, in church groups, over coffee. They also reported increased interest in understanding environmental issues in the news, in forming political decisions, and in personal energy choices.