Achieving Breadth and Depth in a Comprehensive University Energy Program

Sunday, February 14, 2016: 1:00 PM-2:30 PM
Wilson A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Joel Swisher, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA
As a case study of the challenges and opportunities in designing higher education to meet the demands of a low-carbon future, we discuss the undergraduate energy curriculum of the Institute for Energy Studies (IES) at Western Washington University (WWU). WWU is a comprehensive university with undergraduate and Masters’ degrees. Faculty conduct research, but without PhD students.

From the outset, the IES has been driven by student interest and guided by industry advice. WWU now offers two energy minors, a BA degree in energy policy and management, and an energy track in the electrical engineering major. The next key step is a BS degree in energy science and technology.

Among the key challenges in designing this program is to make it interdisciplinary in the right way, i.e., educating graduates to be broad and deep. Graduates with interdisciplinary majors are often seen as generalists, lacking in solid skills and tools that can meet immediate needs in a profession. On the other hand, graduates in technical majors are often too narrow and theoretical, lacking broader, system-level understanding needed in the growing clean energy economy.


To achieve the needed balance, the WWU energy curriculum is designed to educate leaders in a clean energy economy, with the following components:

-       Advancement of energy literacy and numeracy at all levels of instruction, including preparation of WWU’s large contingent of Peace Corps volunteers.

-       Links to WWU’s entrepreneurship and innovation program, to prepare graduates as founders of new enterprise and disrupters of existing business

-       Outreach to 2-year colleges to build a pathway for diverse students to transfer, adequately prepared, to a 4-year degree program.

-       The campus and community as a laboratory, collaborating on internships and interdisciplinary capstone projects with campus facilities and energy firms.

-       Filling the skill gap in the demand-side of the energy system - advancing energy efficiency as a business opportunity and environmental imperative.

It is reassuring that the core academic values of WWU already integrate all five key elements of the commitment by 122 deans of engineering schools to meet the “grand challenges” of the 21st century:[1] Thus, our objective, in adding technical content to the WWU energy curriculum, is to reach a balance that is highly complementary to the goals of reformed technical education.


[1] U.S. Engineering School Deans’ Response to President Obama on Educating Engineers to Meet the Grand Challenges