New Academic Programs Tap into Hot Renewable Energy Field

Posted: February 21, 2011 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: February 21, 2011 at 1:17 pm

By Tara Laskowski

With our country — and the world — looking more and more at alternative energy sources for environmental and economic reasons, renewable energy is both a valuable industry and a valid career path.

“Green jobs are not just talk,” says Robert Ehrlich, Mason professor of physics and astronomy.  “This is an area where jobs are growing every day.”

Three recent initiatives at Mason give students opportunities to increase their expertise in this growing area.

Last year, a minor in renewable energy was introduced. This fall, a master of arts in interdisciplinary studies (MAIS) concentration in energy and sustainability will begin; applications are now being accepted from those interested in enrolling in the program.

The concentration will be administered through the College of Science in a new school created by merging the Department of Physics and Astronomy with the Department of Computational and Data Sciences  (to be called the School of Physics, Astronomy and Computational Sciences), but the MAIS degree is offered through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. This program blends science, policy and business courses tailored to individual students’ interests.

Apart from these two programs, a study abroad program focusing on renewable energy will take students this summer to Denmark, Germany and Sweden.

“In order to move toward a sustainable future, the world has begun to realize the need to shift away from energy sources based on fossil fuels that are both limited in supply and damaging to the environment,” says Ehrlich, who coordinates the renewable energy minor and MAIS graduate degree.

Ehrlich’s research interests have recently shifted to renewable energy, and he is currently writing a textbook on the subject.

He believes that providing students with these opportunities prepares them for the future job market.

To prove this point, the minor in renewable energy requires each student to complete an internship at an organization of their choice, and Ehrlich has compiled an extensive database of such opportunities, which is part of Rev-Up, the Renewable Energy Valuation and Understanding Project information service and social-educational networking web site he founded.

For civil engineering senior Joseph Arseneau, the internship gave him some valuable real-world experience. He worked at Continuum Energy Solutions, an energy efficiency and solar energy company that helps customers improve their homes’ efficiency.

As part of his internship, Arseneau went along on a solar site assessment. The company’s team took measurements on a house roof to determine how much solar energy the house would get throughout the year and whether installing solar energy panels would be cost-effective for the homeowner.

“I found this particularly useful,” he says. “Most renewable energy technologies are quickly rising, while other energy technologies are passing their peak. Having a background in renewable energies will benefit me in the future job market.”

Another way students can get up close and personal with renewable energy initiatives is through the European summer study program that Ehrlich is hosting June 22 to July 7. The program includes visits to a wind farm, a solar-cell manufacturing plant, a solar research institution and a nuclear power plant.

“Many European nations have been particularly active in shifting toward renewable energy sources, and three of the leaders are Denmark, Sweden and, especially, Germany,” says Ehrlich.

For more information and to apply online, visit the Center for Global Education website. The deadline for applications is March 4.

Write to mediarel at