Lycoming College professors discuss various approaches to the study of energy

Six Lycoming College professors discussed the future of energy during a panel discussion on Feb. 15 at Lycoming College.

The discussion, titled “The Future of Energy? An Interdisciplinary Approach,” showcased the range of issues and challenges surrounding the production and use of energy and their implications locally, nationally and globally. Faculty discussed how specific fields like biology, physics, political science and history address subjects connected to energy in their classrooms and in their research.

“Energy issues are complex and intersect across academic disciplines,” said Jonathan Williamson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Energy and the Future and associate professor of political science who moderated the panel. “Because our understanding of energy issues from one field influences the questions studied by other fields, a liberal arts college like ours will develop students with the well-rounded background needed to be more effective with identifying the energy solutions of tomorrow.”

The panel consisted of faculty who will be teaching courses for the College’s new minors in energy studies and energy science, which will be available starting in the fall:

Bob Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, said that biologists look at the intersection of human culture with the natural world. They help translate intrinsic values, like the desire for clean water and air, into state and national policy. They help determine ways to measure the impact of human activities on the environment.

Michael Kurtz, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics, said that economics researchers study how and why people act in regard to energy, and the consequences of those actions. For example, they would be inclined to study things like the rise and fall of oil prices and would help government officials determine when and how to subsidize an industry. They look at factors that show what the public wants and then help government officials achieve it. Kurtz encourages people to avoid political sound bites and start discussing the nuances of issues. Looking at things in a different way may result in a solution that better serves society.

Ryan Adams, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, said that anthropologists study cultural beliefs, values, practices and traditions surrounding the use of energy. For example, Americans consume an enormous amount of energy compared to other countries around the world. Anthropologists ask why? Anthropologists also look at how energy use impacts the rise and fall of empires, who bears the weight of the costs and how energy is distributed.

Laura Seddelmeyer, Ph.D., assistant professor of history, said that historians study the distribution of global resources and how those resources impact societies. By documenting past trends, they help people plan for the future. Historians are likely to study things like the transformation of the military from using coal to oil. They trace the colonization of areas to gain access to resources and the decolonization when resources are depleted. Historical perspectives help people understand how things change over time.

Charles Mahler, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, said that chemistry is good for making and measuring things. Chemists are well-suited to discovering improvements to technologies like solar panels and wind turbines and how to make power lines more efficient. They also study the results of energy use such as what chemicals are released into the environment.

Charles Doersam, M.S., lab manager and planetarium director for physics, said that physicists study how energy and other forms of matter fit together. They answer questions like “What is energy? How it is produced?” and “what are the good and bad consequences of its production and use?” He also encourages a proactive approach that asks “How do we go forward from here? What are our options and are any more sustainable?”

Throughout, the panel stressed the importance of balanced and varied views to help educate upcoming generations of students who will eventually shoulder the ongoing resolution of human energy needs.

The panel discussion is part of the College’s semester-long colloquium on “Our Energy Future” and is sponsored by the Center for Energy and the Future, which will begin full operations next fall.

Lycoming College’s Center for Energy and the Future (CEF) brings the College’s interdisciplinary, liberal arts approach to the study of the complex and interconnected questions surrounding our energy future. CEF engages students, faculty, researchers, business and political leaders, and the general public in an ongoing and fair-minded conversation about energy systems of all types and their impacts at a local, national and global level.

Useful Resources