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Energy, the Environment, and Our Future

Get Rich and Save the Earth…Or Else! Learn about the past, present, and possible futures of human energy use.


Course at a Glance

About the Course

Join internationally-acclaimed researcher and award-winning educator Richard Alley in an exploration of the role of energy in our environment and our future. Energy use has done great good for humans by giving those in the developed world the equivalent of 100 energy "serfs" to do our bidding, making up roughly 10% of the economy, and powering most of the economy.  However, the unintended consequences of energy use are affecting people around the world and changing the climate in ways that will make life much harder.  Numerous options exist for development of a sustainable energy system that provides a stronger economy, more jobs, and greater security that is more consistent with ethical principles.  The course explores these issues.
“Energy, the Environment, and Our Future” will combine student-centered instructional materials and film clips from the PBS TV series Earth: The Operators' Manual, also hosted by Richard Alley, to tell the history, present, and possible futures of human energy use. 

Course Syllabus

(Subject to change before course begins)

●    Lesson 1. Sustainability: Why Energy Matters (and Money)  
●    Lesson 2. What is Energy—Units and Such; What we use, and how much good it does  
●    Lesson 3. Oil, Coal and Natural Gas, Drilling and Fracking and Reserves  
●    Lesson 4. Global Warming I—Physics 
●    Lesson 5. Global Warming II—History  and Impacts 
●    Lesson 6. Options: Solar, Wind
●    Lesson 7. Options: Geothermal, Waves, Tides, Nukes
●    Lesson 8. Options: Conservation
●    Lesson 9. Options: Geo-Engineering
●    Lesson 10. Economics
●    Lesson 11. Policy Options
●    Lesson 12. Ethical issues 

Recommended Background

No background is needed - all are welcome!

Suggested Readings

This course will build on the PBS Video Series “Earth: The Operator’s Manual,” as well as the companion book of the same title. See for additional information about these resources.

Course Format

The course will incorporate text and video lecture materials that are embedded with rich media, including compelling film clips from the PBS TV series Earth: The Operators' Manual (hosted by course instructor Richard Alley). Short exercises, objective quizzes, and a participation will assess student progress.  Students will also have opportunities to engage in a world-wide conversation that is taking place online on matters of climate change and clean energy.


Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class? 
Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.

What resources will I need for this class?
For this course, all you need is an Internet connection and the time to watch lectures, read course content, complete lab assignments, and discuss some assignments with your peers.

What future learning opportunities will this class prepare me for?
If you are looking for additional coursework related to energy and the environment, you may be interested in Penn State's online bachelor's degree program in Energy and Sustainability Policy or our Intercollege Master of Professional Studies program in Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems