Reflection on Teaching “Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet”

In August, I taught a 7-session seminar series through Wave Learning Festival, a new student-founded organization offering free remote learning. This was an exciting new experience for me, as I’ve never taught before. I got to design my own course off of one of my favorite new books, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet by Tom Murphy (my review here).

The blurb I wrote for the course:

Already an apathetic pessimist, or bursting with optimism about the future of technology? This course is for you! Adapted from the titular book by Tom Murphy, we’ll explore how the one-time rocket ship of fossil fuels we’ve been riding for the past few centuries has led to a “dangerously distorted impression of what ‘normal’ looks like on this planet.” Using physics and math, we’ll remedy our intuition, setting quantitative bounds on the present era and using them to inform future visions. Topics include energy, economics, population, and space colonization, viewed through both quantitative and social lenses.

This came to be quite serendipitously. I had just discovered the book mid-summer. It occurred to me that this was the kind of course I would have wanted, as a climate-concerned high schooler. We’re at a pivotal point in human history, yet most schools don’t seem to be preparing students to understand it. Sure, they’re charged with teaching foundational math and science, but we could do with a lot more of what makes them important right now, regardless of occupation. Anyway, I recalled seeing Wave LF on Facebook, so I applied to create and teach the seminar.

It is very true that teaching is one of the best ways to learn. I read and re-read the textbook in order to adapt it into slides—around 50 per lecture. Of course, I didn’t have time to cover every detail, so condensing the material was also a challenge at times. I also had to understand the material well enough to explain largely from memory. I generally practiced a dry run lecture before each session, which often revealed weaknesses in my understanding. After teaching this course, my understanding of this book was far deeper after than I would have attained by simply reading it once.

To my surprise, I often ended up using the whole 90 minutes of lecture time. The first few lectures left me exhausted from the effort and with a headache afterwards, but by the last lecture, these symptoms were no more! Regardless, my respect for teachers has increased. I also now truly understand why people keep water at hand when speaking. The nervous dry throat was real.

A great part of this textbook is the problems at the end of each chapter. They range from math problems (If an average American is responsible for consuming a barrel of oil every 18 days, what power does this correspond to, in Watts?) to open-ended response (Do you think governments and/or tribal laws have any business setting policy around child birth policies?). I selected a few of these for the students to consider after each lecture on the online discussion board. Working the math problems myself and responding to the responses also furthered my own learning. This part also made me realize how much of a struggle getting student participation is, especially in online classes. This also increases my sympathy for teachers during the Zoom school era.

All in all, this was a fantastic experience. I learned so much about topics that I care about greatly and was able to communicate it to others. I was lucky to have a small group of students who tuned into this rather experimental series and interacted with the me and the material. I would love to do this again someday, especially in person! I’m also thankful to the people at Wave Learning Festival for organizing this opportunity, and wish them the best of luck as they continue growing.

In the meantime, the learning continues…

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