By Vicki Ekstrom High
Many wouldn’t consider a course focused entirely on producing a research paper to be good preparation for the “real world.” But those people haven’t taken the Energy Policy Practicum, a class offered jointly by the Booth School of Business and Harris School of Public Policy. From public speaking and team problem solving to learning how to accept and absorb criticism, the class teaches fundamentals to surviving and thriving in the workplace. On top of that, the students learn a lot about a topic they care about: energy.
“These are students who when they leave the university are going out in the real world and into environments that are distinctly different than going into a classroom and listening to someone lecture,” says Bob Rosner, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Physics and the Harris School. “This class helps them make that transition. It teaches them content but also teaches them a way of behaving, of problem solving as a group.”
Rosner teaches the course with Robert Topel, the Isidore Brown and Gladys J. Brown Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the Booth School of Business and the original architect of the course. Rosner and Topel are the Founding Co-Directors of EPIC.
Unlike the typical lecture course, the roughly 20 students in the Energy Policy Practicum are broken down into groups of three or four based on a general topic of interest that they would like to study. From there, they work together as a group to develop and define their specific topic and write the research paper.
During each class, the groups present updates on their research and Rosner, Topel and their fellow classmates ask questions and provide guidance.
“Each class session is a workshop that includes both group presentations and smaller meetings with Bob or me”, according to Topel. “In addition to these interactions, we also connect each group to faculty from other parts of the University who have expertise in the particular area of research. The end result is satisfying from the perspective of a faculty member as well—we learn from the original research of the students.”
At the end of the course, the groups present their research findings to an advisory committee of faculty from throughout the University, who critically evaluate the work and provide feedback. Each project is also submitted in the form of a “white paper” that, after suitable revisions, can be published on the EPIC website.
Rosner says learning “to listen to criticism, to be able to absorb comments and to be able to act on it” is a fundamental objective of the course and an important life skill.
The other fundamental objective and critical life lesson is learning to work together, since most ordinary work environments are collaborative. Students are given a problem, and as a group they need to come up with a way to solve it. Part of that means deciding together what needs to be done and who is going to do each part. In that way, while students aren’t given assignments from Rosner and Topel, they do give each other assignments.
“That’s part of the point to learning to working together effectively as a group,” Topel says.
Learning to work effectively as a group also requires the able to work with people with different points of view—and there are plenty of those in the Energy Policy Practicum, including from the professors themselves. Rosner, a physicist, and Topel, an economist, come from “different worlds.” This means that they often have very different views on the same topics.
Likewise, the students in the class come from “amazingly different backgrounds,” Rosner says, from finance to policy to engineering. “The really interesting and really fun thing is figuring out how to reconcile these different points of view because ultimately you have to reconcile them.”
Students find this to be one of the most valuable parts of the class.
“It opens your eyes and your mind to those outside of the ‘Booth-bubble’,“ says Judy Chen, a student at the Booth School of Business who is taking the course this quarter. “Harris students usually bring different perspectives to the table, enriching our conversations and the entire experience.”
Chen is looking forward to interning at a clean energy company this summer, and says that the class is equipping her with a broad base of knowledge on the current challenges within the energy industry.
“Not only am I getting hands-on experience researching the very issues I care about,” Chen says, “I am also gaining a basic understanding of the various other issues within the energy industry at large” from the presentations other groups give each class.
The issues do span across the energy spectrum, including this quarter research topics on nuclear energy, grid modernization, battery storage and the transportation hydrogen market.
Topel says that as a business student interested in energy issues and as a policy student interested in energy issues, it’s useful to have a background in what the issues are and really study them. But, he says, he hopes the class goes beyond teaching just facts, to teach students essentially how to think. Much of that learning comes from the research process itself.
Arvid Viaene, the teaching assistant for the class for the last several years, says the process of defining the area they are interested in and narrowing down the topic to a question that is both interesting and feasible is often one of the most challenging parts of the class. But, “the biggest challenge is also often the biggest lesson,” he says. “They learn how to work independently on hard questions that often have no clear-cut answer. And they learn how to construct ways to tackle and answer them. These analytical skills can be extremely valuable.”
Chen, currently taking the class, agrees: “While researching and writing may be the most time-consuming tasks, defining the direction of research is the most challenging,” she says. But she believes an important take-away from the class will be “the ability to look at an ambiguous issue, break it apart and come up with a unique angle of attack.”
As students preparing to go into the business and policy worlds, being able to analyze a problem and determine the right path is a critical skill, Rosner says.
“This course is not about learning a bunch of facts. Facts are ephemeral. People forget,” he says. “What you want to teach is how to think about something. Learning what to look for and distinguishing right from wrong. That’s the hard part.”