Renewable Energy in Science Class: Physics

As the world confronts the challenge of global climate change, non-polluting alternative energy sources are becoming ever more important in conversations about our collective future.  The answers to the problem will come surely from the work of brilliant scientists and engineers from all over the world.  But in the science classes where we train the scientists and engineers of the future, it’s difficult to find time in a syllabus already stuffed with content to get across the importance of this issue.  The good news, though, is that the technologies behind renewable energy can be readily integrated into existing science curricula without too much effort.  This series of essays will give you a better idea of what concepts and skills in science classes can be used to promote awareness of renewable energy, even using student interest in renewable topics to drive instruction in traditional concepts in different disciplines.

Physics lies at the heart of any science, as the interactions of different fundamental particles and the movement of macroscopic objects affect everything from microbiology to astronomy.  So physics is actually easy to infuse with renewable energy topics, from the turning of turbine blades to the motion of charge in wires.  Here are a few easy, standards-based renewable energy activities to run in a physics class.

1. The simplest way to tackle renewable energy in physics class is when the topic is electricity, especially electric circuits.  Ohm’s law, power, current, voltage, resistance, and more can be covered with any circuit, so why not one powered by a renewable energy source?  Since many renewable energy sources are variable, there’s ample opportunity to see how various variables change.

2. The motion of a turbine can be an excellent way to examine rotational kinetics.  A wind turbine allows students to easily measure the physical attributes of the spinning blades, and measuring revolutions per minute allows for a number of calculations to be made.

3. Many renewable energy sources can be used to power moving vehicles, making the concept of energy transformation from electric to kinetic easy to demonstrate.

4. Thermoelectric generators, though more difficult to find, provide a fantastic setting to demonstrate principles of thermodynamics, and are of course the signature way to demonstrate the Seebeck and thermoelectric effect.

These are just a few of the ways that renewable energy can be integrated into a physics class. Do you have examples that you’ve used in your class?  Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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