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The University of Delaware has developed a new graduate course in solar hydrogen, one of just a few UD graduate-level courses to use the highly regarded problem-based learning instructional strategy.

UD offers interdisciplinary solar hydrogen course

The University of Delaware has developed a new graduate course in solar hydrogen through its National Science Foundation-funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program on this subject.

Solar Hydrogen Systems in Renewable Energy (ELEG/MSEG 667), the first interdisciplinary course developed for the program, is required for IGERT participants but open to other interested students.

One of just a few graduate-level courses at UD to use the problem-based learning (PBL) instructional strategy, the course covers a broad range of topics relating to solar hydrogen and includes technical analyses of energy payback, applications of solar hydrogen systems, energy efficiency analysis of hydrogen systems, and economics and policy.

“PBL is an effective active-learning approach for integrating students' prior disciplinary knowledge and learning new material in a meaningful interdisciplinary format,” said George Watson, deputy dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and UNIDEL Professor of Physics and Astronomy. “The approach lent itself naturally to the new course for IGERT students, particularly given that the 'I' in IGERT is for integrative. I hope that our effort will be shown to be effective as we analyze students' feedback and their learning, and that the approach will be more widely used in engineering.”

Watson, an internationally recognized expert in PBL, helped to design the course and co-taught it with Robert Opila, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and principal investigator of the IGERT program; Mo Bremner, IGERT program coordinator; and IGERT Fellow Meghan Schulz, who served as the TA.

Problems addressed by the four groups of five students who took the two-credit course during the 2009 Winter Session included development of a renewable energy plan for UD's Early Learning Center, development of an integrated approach to renewable energy in Hawaii, a comprehensive assessment of the energy system in Cameroon, and creation of a plan for Bluewater Wind to achieve 40 percent wind power in Delaware by 2020.

“It's an incredible experience to do PBL with a group of students who are invested in it and excited about it,” Opila says. “They just take it and run with it. This has been my number one educational experience since I joined the faculty at UD.”

Schulz, who helped to put together the problems for the course, says that she was really impressed with the results of the students' projects.

And the students were apparently impressed with the course. Cory Budischak, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering, found that it provided him with a foundation for intelligent debate about solar hydrogen issues, as well as strong connections going forward.

Beth Cheney, a doctoral candidate in chemical engineering, says that the course gave her “a fantastic opportunity to investigate first-hand how cost-effective and feasible our renewable options are and the potential they hold for our state, our country, and our planet.”

UD has been called “the mecca of problem-based learning in the United States,” and its undergraduate PBL initiative has been referred to as “nationally renowned.” While the IGERT course is not the first application of PBL to graduate education, it is one of just a handful of offerings to follow this format, where “the problem comes first.”

“We're beginning to think that this approach may be even more effective at the graduate level than the undergraduate,” Opila says. “The IGERT program, with its inherent mix of disciplines and its highly motivated students, was the perfect environment for PBL.”

Watson, Opila, Bremner, and Schulz plan to publish a paper on the course in the PBL literature and make the course material available at UD's PBL Clearinghouse.

Note: The UD Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education is offering two PBL training programs this spring. Visit the Web site for more information.

Article by Diane Kukich

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