Stimulating student interest in learning about energy and climate: An exploratory case study

  • Dr. Maria A. Petrova
    Co-Director of Environment and Sustainability Management Program at George Town University
Energy & Natural Resources

Stimulating student interest in learning about energy and climate: An exploratory case study


Teaching about sustainability, climate, and energy is becoming a key subject for many graduate and undergraduate degrees. Energy is identified as an important component in realizing the impact humans have on the climate and the environment. In developing energy courses, therefore, it is essential to understand how to effectively transfer learning objectives to tangible knowledge and skills. The questions this research explores are related to student motivations for taking such courses and the pedagogical approaches they find most effective. A case study approach is used to test these questions in a one-credit online “Managing Energy Transitions” course, taught in Spring 2022 and 2023 at the American University in Bulgaria. 


The importance of transitioning to net-zero emissions in an effort to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and limit warming to 1.5C under the Paris Agreement target is well established. In May 2022, the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded a key milestone—421 parts per million, which is more than 50% higher than pre-industrial times. For comparison, before the late-19th-century industrial revolution, carbon dioxide levels were at 280 parts per million. The intense burning of fossil fuels is the primary reason for increased emissions. Scientists warn that to reduce the human impact on the environment and keep temperatures steady, carbon dioxide should be kept at a level of 350 parts per million, which can be achieved most efficiently by switching from conventional to renewable sources of energy.[1] Therefore, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is urgently needed to avoid reaching planetary tipping points that cannot be reversed. The United Nations Environment Program’s 2022 Emissions Gap Report underscores the urgency of the situation by saying, “The window is closing! The world is not on track to reach the Paris Agreement goals and global temperatures can reach 2.8°C by the end of the century”.[2] 

The historical increase in the need for and use of energy affects everyone and everythingfrom loss of biodiversity and human lives to industry and geopolitics. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the lead-up to COP28, which will be convened in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, during November-December 2023, countries and governments are asking questions such as: What steps should be taken ahead of and at COP28, either inside or outside the UNFCCC process, to facilitate outcomes that are solutions-oriented, forward-looking, and lead to systems transformation? The answers to such questions will lay the groundwork needed for a successful COP28 that “drives global transformation towards a low-emission and climate-resilient world, fosters ambitious climate action and facilitates implementation, including the related support.”[3] 

Education has been recognized as a key lever for bringing about transformative change, instilling environmental awareness, acquiring an understanding of the relationship between humans and nature, and developing a sense of responsibility and urgency for environmental problems to ensure appropriate action is taken to solve said problems. With the adoption of the Belgrade Charter in 1975 at the International Workshop on Environmental Education and subsequent international declarations, petitions, and reports, environmental and sustainability education has been considered paramount to developing solutions to our current environmental challenges. It has been acknowledged that education can bring about the transformative change that is so urgently needed for making humans live more sustainably, equitably, and ethically within the environment.[4] 

For almost 50 years, we have singled out and relied on education to be the beacon of change and to bring about the needed transformation in mindset and awareness of the consequences of overreliance on nature and overuse of natural resources. Despite this progress, comparatively little attention has been devoted to teaching about energy. Given the time-sensitive nature of the energy transition, a concerted effort must be made to train the future sustainability and energy workforce and to educate the next generation of scientists, policymakers, and business managers on the topics of energy, climate, and sustainability. It is crucial for them to understand the consequences of our overreliance on traditional energy resources, the challenges of transitioning to renewable energy, and the implementation of energy efficiency measures. Nowotny et al. argue that the need to aggressively decarbonize the energy economy and develop new technologies “can only be addressed by a multi-pronged approach to research and education of the next generation of scientists and engineers as well as informed public discourse.”[5] As such, teaching about sustainability in general and energy in particular, has to become a key subject for many graduate and undergraduate degrees. Acquiring knowledge, skills, and mindsets that allow individuals to become deeply committed to building a sustainable future and making informed and effective decisions should be a top priority for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). 

Teaching about renewable energy presents several challenges. First, research suggests that it should be taught as an interdisciplinary subject; however, developing an interdisciplinary curriculum is a complex task, as a variety of compromises and trade-offs need to be made regarding the topics to be included and the depth of their treatment within the allotted class time.[6] Second, there is the question about the types of activities and teaching materials that will get students motivated and interested in the subject matter.[7][8] It has been shown that when students are engaged and enjoy learning, they retain the most from the material; therefore, it is important to structure the curriculum and material in such a way that is most beneficial to the students.[9] And third, in online classes, instructors must keep students engaged and motivated to learn using digital technology.[10] 

Ultimately, these challenges all relate to the student experience. Therefore, this paper explores student motivations for taking such courses and the class activities that are most effective. A case study of a one-credit, online “Managing Energy Transitions” course taught to undergraduate students in Spring 2022 and Spring 2023 at the American University in Bulgaria will be used to:

  • Understand student motivations for taking an energy course
  • Gauge which pedagogical approaches and types of teaching activities, assignments, and projects stimulate learning and are most enjoyed by the students
  • Measure student satisfaction with the course and gather suggestions for improvement in pedagogy, topics, and activities 

The larger implications of this undertaking are relevant not only to university professors teaching energy to undergraduate students but also to decision makers and businesses who are focusing on their future workforce—who want to understand their employees’ attitudes, values, knowledge, and skills, as well as ways to attract and retain them. Engaging undergraduate students in sustainability helps them gain clarity about future sustainability-related career paths and increases their desire to attend graduate school.[11] In addition, because we are exploring the student motivations of a particular age cohort—the generation born mainly between 1996 and 2012, or the so-called Generation Z or Gen Z—we need to understand their specific motivations for acquiring sustainability skills more closely.[12] Finally, it is important to accelerate the knowledge transfer that aligns the needed knowledge and skills with the jobs that will power the energy transition, as more jobs will be created. For example, estimates by the International Labour Organization show that the green economy could create 24 million jobs by 2030.[13] This upward trend is projected to continue past 2030 as well.[14] 

This paper 1) provides an overview of pedagogical approaches for teaching energy and sustainability; 2) discusses how students learn and their motivations for learning; 3) presents the case study of the class that was taught at the American University in Bulgaria; and 4) concludes with specific recommendations about the most effective pedagogical approaches for teaching the new generation about energy and sustainability. 

1. Teaching about energy

Developing sustainability degrees and curricula that include teaching about energy has indeed become a priority for many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). The topic of environmental education, and specifically sustainability education or education for sustainable development (ESD) has been discussed in many academic papers, conferences, and international meetings (Broman 1994[15]; Rowe 2007;[16] UNESCO 1975;[17] Wright 2010;[18] Yang and Xiu 2023;[19] Jorgenson, Stephens, and White 2019;[20] Kandpal and Broman 2014;[21] Lozano et al. 2013[22]). The terms “environmental education” and “sustainability education” are used interchangeably in many instances. Therefore, it should be clarified that while environmental education focuses specifically on issues related to the environment, sustainability education is a broader term that also incorporates social and economic concerns. Berchin et al. explain that “ESD is a field of research that seeks to understand how sustainability can be implemented in the curricula and operational activities of HEIs, assuming they are committed to promoting the transformation of societies toward more sustainable standards.”[23] Teaching about energy is more closely aligned with sustainability education rather than environmental education because energy needs to be studied not only from a technology perspective, but also in terms of its implications on the environment, society, and the economy. 

When developing energy courses, it is essential to develop learning objectives that relate to acquiring tangible knowledge and skills. Moreover, it has been shown that students are better able to master the material when they are engaged in the subject and motivated to learn.[24][25][26]The question, therefore, is what style of teaching and what kinds of activities will most motivate students to learn. 

2. Understanding student motivations 

2a. Student motivations to learn and activity-based methods

Student motivation is defined as the value a student attributes to learning a particular concept and their personal interest in that concept.[27] It is a key factor in understanding student behavior, performance, and learning in a given course. The literature discusses student motivation in two ways. First, it studies the enthusiasm to acquire and retain the material that is being presented in class; such discussions include learning methods and activities. Second, it focuses on student motivation to pursue a specific subject, such as sustainability or energy, as part of their selected field of study. 

The traditional style of learning relies on the professor lecturing to the class. While lectures allow the professor to maximize the amount of factual information that can be presented, especially to large audiences, it has been shown that students’ retention rates are relatively low when they are passively listening, especially for an entire class period. In Nilson’s book, Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, she describes findings from scientific studies that show lecturing beyond fifteen minutes is counterproductive, as it “pushes students’ ability to process and retain the material.”[28] Studies also show that only 10% of students could recall a fact that was used to illustrate a concept just fifteen minutes after the professor shared it with them. Moreover, lecturing is not an effective method for teaching students how to do something themselves. Even if students are able to recall facts from the lecture, this doesn’t mean that they know how to apply the facts or think critically about them. 

Lecturing does not advance students’ skills, such as writing, speaking, formulating arguments, analyzing, or proposing and implementing solutions. Moreover, lecturing does not incorporate previous knowledge, nor does it encourage creativity. Therefore, to develop higher-order thinking skills, it is important that lessons incorporate active student involvement. Engaging students in activity-based learning has been shown to be much more effective than traditional lecturing style.[29] 

Activity-based learning incorporates different interactive activities in the classroom in order to enhance critical thinking and creativity.[30] Activity-based learning aims to motivate students to encounter the HOW of learning by using various techniques and activities.[31] In other words, besides learning factual information, students also learn how to solve problems. Moreover, encouraging open dialogue in the class allows students to understand new perspectives of people from different backgrounds and experiences. Some activities that have been used in the classroom to improve student engagement and motivation for learning include workshops, brainstorming, mind-mapping, presentations, written submissions, peer critiquing, lecture/seminar, self-reflection, and “speed dating” with more senior students.[32] [33]Such activities maximize participation, leading to more effective learning. 

As explained in McGrath & MacEwan (2011, p.23),[34] in activity-based education, the student becomes “more actively involved in the learning process through acts of ‘doing,’ ‘being,’ and ‘critically reflecting’ than in traditional, didactic education that is more centered around the passive act of ‘knowing.’” Petress (2008)[35] has identified typical characteristics of active learners: they ask questions for clarification; challenge ideas, procedures, and content; connect current learning to past learning; attach what is learned to skill development; discuss what is known with others; and remain enthusiastic about learning. 

Besides activity-based learning, other learning methods are problem- and project-based learning, as well as collaborative learning. While elements of problem-, project-, and collaborative-based learning are incorporated into activity-based learning, each is considered a separate approach with its own characteristics. For example, in problem-based learning (PBL), students work in groups and learn by resolving complex real-world problems as opposed to absorbing the presentation of facts and concepts.[36] In contrast to traditional assessment methods, PBL instructors rely on “authentic assessment,” in which problem-solving culminates in a demonstration or presentation of learning, often in a written form such as a recommendation, a report, or a summary of what was learned.[37] Problem-based learning is closely related to project-based learning.[38] Coffey defines project-based learning as a teaching approach that “engages students in sustained, collaborative real-world investigations.”[39] 

Several authors, such as Wiek and Cörvers, discuss the value of incorporating both problem- and project-based learning—PPBL.[40][41] They maintain that in addition to “providing experiential learning opportunities that are effective in all educational fields,” problem- and project-based learning is especially necessary for teaching about sustainability. This is due to sustainability’s unique multidisciplinary nature: developing solutions to sustainability challenges requires in-depth exploration, an understanding of societal problems, and collaboration across different areas of expertise.[42] Sustainability programs and courses “must equip students not only with content knowledge and analytical skills but also with interpersonal competencies and transdisciplinary/transacademic work experience”.[43] That makes PPBL well-equipped to provide students with the tools needed to address key sustainability and energy issues.[44] As the authors note, such skills cannot be developed solely through lecture-based teaching. Instead, they require hands-on experience. PBBL provides students with the tools to develop not only content knowledge and analytical skills but also interpersonal competencies and transdisciplinary exposure (i.e., “soft” skills such as research, negotiation, teamwork, reading, writing, and oral communication). However, Whitmer et al. suggest that, to date, higher education institutions have found it challenging to provide cohesive PPBL opportunities. One reason mentioned by the authors is the “relative lack of successful models.”[45] 

2b. What motivates students to take energy and sustainability classes

Student motivation is particularly important in sustainability education, as inspiring a change of attitude or behavior is at the core of encouraging sustainable development.[46] Regarding student motivation to pursue energy and sustainability as their field of study and to participate in a sustainability-related course, Griswold et al. found that students’ primary motivation was their interest in pursuing a career in sustainability and attending graduate school in the field.[47] In another study, Lewis, identified the factors that motivated undergraduate students at the University of Arkansas to pursue a minor in sustainability.[48] Of those motivational factors—career, learning, monetary remuneration, and social responsibility—the study found a statistically significant difference among all four. Regarding a student’s decision to pursue a minor in sustainability, participants indicated that their primary motivation was a desire to learn. Lastly, based on the mean rank, the motivational variables of learning and social responsibility were stronger than career and monetary motivations for both male and female students.[49] 

Pursuing a career in sustainability requires the development of “green” skills, which are also essential to attaining the Sustainable Development Goals. Green skills are defined as competencies that are needed for “enabling the environmental sustainability of economic activities.”[50] Jobs that necessitate such skills have been estimated to have grown annually by 11% between 2015 and 2021, compared to 9% for jobs that rely on traditional skills.[51] Moreover, the highest growth rate of people who possess green skills is among Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), followed by Gen Zs.[52] Therefore, it is not surprising that sustainability education in general—and courses on energy in particular—are gaining traction in higher education institutions as the demand for green skills increases. In that vein, a 2014 research study conducted by the Center for Environmental Education Research, the National Council for Science, and the Environment for the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors remarked that there was an “explosive” growth of interdisciplinary sustainability programs and noted, “Over the last 40 years, interdisciplinary environmental and sustainability (IES) programs have moved from being uncommon and experimental toward becoming mainstream, high enrollment academic programs.”[53] The report estimated that in the United States alone, there were over 1,150 programs, centers, and institutes, and that their number was rising quickly. One of the main reasons for the swift and continuing increase of IES programs is businesses’ need to respond to the demand for trained employees in environment and sustainability. 

Green jobs are not only occupations that have not previously existed; they are also found in sectors such as finance, fashion technologies, and transport as those sectors become “greener.” According to the online platform LinkedIn, demand for green skills has doubledeven tripledin recent years.[54] This is especially the case with jobs in the renewable energy field. The 2022 LinkedIn report states that “in the last five years, the number of Renewables & Environment jobs in the U.S. has increased by 237%, in stark contrast to the 19% increase for Oil & Gas jobs”. LinkedIn predicts that job openings in the Renewables & Environment sector will exceed those in the Oil & Gas sector on LinkedIn by 2023. Some of the fastest-growing jobs are related specifically to energy, e.g., Wind Turbine Technician (24%) and Solar Consultant (23%). More recently, in the United States, the Department of Energy has estimated that as a result of the Inflation Reduction Act adopted in 2022, 170,000 jobs have been created in the energy sector alone.[55] 

Besides the need for green skills, Gen Z are motivated by learning about and gaining skills that can help them live more sustainable lives, including reducing plastic waste, increasing energy efficiency, and contributing to sustainable purchasing. Gen Z have a substantial impact on sustainability practices, as they represent 40% of global consumers, and 90% of them believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues.[56] The majority of Gen Z shoppers prefer to buy from sustainable brands and are willing to pay more for sustainable products.[57] More importantly, their impact will continue to increase as they enter the workforce and their purchasing power increases.


Gen Z’s identity is said to be shaped by climate anxiety, a shifting financial landscape, and COVID-19.[58] Climate change is one of the issues Gen Zs care about the most. They frequently call for reform on personal, public, and global scales to prevent future catastrophes. They mobilize and participate in climate events like the Global Climate March, led by Greta Thunberg, a major Gen Z activist.[59] More than any other generation, Gen Z collectively demands purpose and accountability, the creation of more opportunities for people of diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, and rigorous sustainable and green practices. If they suspect companies of greenwashing or a lack of authenticity, they are the first to raise a red flag.[60] Therefore, many corporations are responding to Gen Z’s expectations for social equity and environmental protection and are trying to be as transparent as possible in disclosing their practices. This creates a real paradigm shift toward consideration of the impact of a company’s decisions on people, society, and the planet.


3. Case Study – Teaching “Managing Transitions” at the American University in Bulgaria 

3a. Case Study Location and Justification

The American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) is the first liberal arts American-style university to be established after the fall of communism in Southeastern Europe. It is a private, independent, not-for-profit educational institution of higher learning with English as the language of instruction. When it opened its doors in 1991, it had only 208 admitted students and 16 full-time faculty members. Currently, 1,100 students are enrolled annually, with over 70 faculty. The student body is very diverse—students come from more than 40 different countries all over the world, with the majority of them from Southeastern Europe.[61] 

AUBG currently offers 14 different majors, 21 minors, and many different concentrations. Business Administration continues to be the most popular major, followed by Economics, Political Science and International Relations, and Journalism and Mass Communication. Double-majors are also popular among the students. As a relatively young university, AUBG has an entrepreneurial spirit that supports the addition of new majors and allows students to create their own interdisciplinary program of study under the supervision of a faculty member.[62] 

The American University in Bulgaria is accredited both in the United States by the New England Commission of Higher Education and in Bulgaria by the National Agency for Evaluation and Accreditation. The main campus is located in the town of Blagoevgrad, some 80 miles south of the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia, with an auxiliary campus dedicated mainly to executive education, located in Sofia itself. 

3b. Course timing and logistics

AUBG was selected as the laboratory for this case study because the author, an alumna from the first graduating class, was offered the opportunity to design and teach a one-credit course related to energy for business majors, to be taught online. At that time, most of the classes were still held either online or in hybrid fashion because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the university had started offering a variety of one-credit business electives as an experiment in diversifying the course offerings for business majors. 

The Managing Energy Transitions course was taught for the first time in spring 2022 and was subsequently taught again the following spring semester of 2023. The course was introduced as an elective for third-year (junior) and fourth-year (senior) Business Administration majors interested in learning more about the impact of business on energy, climate, and sustainability. It was scheduled to take place over 10 meeting sessions twice per week, in the evenings from 17:45 to 19:00 local time. While 17 students signed up for the class in 2022, 7 enrolled in 2023. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the reason for the smaller number of students taking the course the second time it was offered was not because of decreased student interest but because of student preferences for in-person classes over online ones. 

The aims of the course were for students to familiarize themselves with various energy technologies and their implications, learn about the roles of different energy actors, understand the characteristics and drivers of energy transitions, analyze trends that are disruptive to the energy sector, and be able to identify innovative solutions to tackling the current energy transition. Using backward design—a technique that begins by identifying desired results, from goals to concepts, and then creating assessments—the content and non-content learning objectives were set, and then the activities and assessment instruments were developed.[63][64] Prior to the course, we posited which content-based learning objective and non-content-based learning objective corresponded to each of the learning activities in order to best fit our pedagogical approaches. Eleven non-content learning objectives were identified for the course based on research that defines “soft” skills useful for an interdisciplinary course and a career in sustainability/energy : working in teams, managing projects and holding leadership roles, practicing oral and written communication, developing self-awareness and evaluation of group processes, working independently, thinking critically and analyzing, explaining concepts, self-directed learning, applying course content to real-world examples, improving research and information literacy, and problem-solving across disciplines. [65][66]  

Based on the efficacy of activity-based learning and the objectives for the course, the following activities were used to achieve these objectives: lectures, in-class discussions, newsroom, reading responses, simulations, guest speakers, and final project. These are described in Table 1. 

Table 1: Activity-based learning components with content- and non-content-based learning objectives

Activity (used in class)

Description of the activity

Content-based learning objectives

Non-content-based learning objectives

Class Lectures

(2022 & 2023)

The course instructor prepared Google Slide presentations to present material to students.

Familiarize themselves with various energy technologies and their implications; understand the characteristics and the drivers of energy transitions; examine the roles of different actors, analyze trends that are distributive to the energy sector.

Increase listening skills and attention span

Energy Newsroom

(2022 & 2023)

Every week, students had to find a current article related to energy in a news source (e.g., New York Times, the Atlantic, Bloomberg). Students then wrote a summary to post to Canvas. Students were randomly called on to present their article in class. They also engaged in discussion about the posted articles and questions.

Understand the characteristics and the drivers of energy transitions and analyze trends that are disruptive to the energy sector.

Oral and written communication, self-directed learning, research and information literacy, and problem-solving across disciplines

Reading Responses


For each of the assigned readings, students posted to Canvas a 250-300 word reading response, addressing 2-3 specific questions related to the class readings.

Familiarize themselves with various energy technologies and their implications and understand the characteristics and the drivers of energy transitions.

Oral and written communication, working independently, critical thinking and analysis, applying course content to real-world examples (dependent on the specific reading) and explaining concepts.

Class Discussions

(2022 & 2023)

Throughout the course, students participated in sustained exchange between the instructor and fellow students. Students discussed assigned readings, and presented material.

Understand the characteristics and the drivers of energy transitions.


Oral and written communication

Guest Speakers

(2022 & 2023)

Professionals from industry, non-profit, and government organizations were invited to discuss a topic relevant to the studied material. Students were encouraged to ask questions and engage with the speakers.

Familiarize themselves with various energy technologies and their implications.

Applying course content to real-world examples

En-Roads Simulation



Over two class periods students worked in small teams of 3-4 with the MIT En-Roads simulation. The simulation challenged students to create a scenario that successfully addresses climate change while considering their assigned role in the economy.

Examine the role of different actors; propose innovative solutions to tackling the current energy transition.

Working in teams; managing projects and holding leadership roles, oral and written communication, self-awareness and evaluation of group processes; critical thinking and analysis; applying course content to real-world examples


FT game


Over two class periods, students worked in small teams of two with the Financial Times game/ simulation. The simulation challenged students to assume the role of a Global Minister for Future Generations with the goal to reach net zero by 2050. While cutting emissions, students had to address questions that highlighted how factors such as cooperation, innovation, financial system reform and human equality are core levers of emissions reduction.

Analyze the role of different actors and innovations; propose innovative solutions to tackling the current energy transition.

Working in teams; managing projects and holding leadership roles, oral and written communication, self-awareness and evaluation of group processes; critical thinking and analysis; applying course content to real-world examples

Cape Wind Town Hall Simulation


This was a role-playing activity. Students assumed the positions of different stakeholders that have been involved in the siting process of Cape Wind offshore wind farm off of the coast of Massachusetts. They had to present their stand and answer fellow stakeholders’ questions.

Understand the arguments of different stakeholders and the challenges of dealing with local opposition when business and policy people attempt to site renewable energy installations.

Oral expression, developing convincing arguments, holding leadership roles

Final Project

(2022 & 2023)

For their final project in the course, students selected from a list of emerging energy innovations (distributed solar, energy storage, electric vehicles, off-shore wind, energy efficiency, demand response, microgrids, carbon capture and storage, new nuclear, and wave energy) and analyzed potential impacts on markets, customers, and the electrical system. Students were tasked with writing an objective analysis.

Propose innovative solutions to tackling the current energy transition; analyze trends that are disruptive to the energy sector

Managing projects and holding leadership roles; oral and written communication; working independently; critical thinking and analysis; explaining concepts; self-directed learning; applying course content to real-world examples; researching and information literacy; problem-solving across disciplines


3c. Survey instrument

In order to achieve the goals of this research, a survey was administered at the end of each course. It consisted of 17 questions divided into three sections. The first section asked about student majors and year of study. The second asked about their motivations for taking the course and whether they intended to pursue a career related to sustainability. The third section asked questions specific to the course’s teaching activities, assignments, and projects; suggestions for improvement; and whether the students would recommend the course to their peers. 

The response rate from the class taught in 2022 was relatively low—35%—as only six students responded out of the 17 enrolled, while the response rate from the class taught in 2023 was 100%. All responses are analyzed below.  

4. Results

Respondents from both classes majored or double-majored in Business Administration. Some of the other majors pursued as double-majors were European Studies, Information Systems, Political Science, and Economics. All respondents were juniors or seniors. Other geodemographic questions related to gender, age, or nationality were not asked. The surveys were anonymous. 

Examining students’ motivations to take the course, the first question related to future career plans. We learned that all of the respondents were interested in pursuing a career related to energy, climate, or sustainability, with 66.7% being certain and 33.3% leaning toward such a career in the 2022 survey, while the results were reversed in the 2023 survey: 33.3% were certain and 66.7% leaned toward such a career. 

To an open-ended question about the motivations for taking the course, many students responded that they were interested in sustainability and learning about how businesses could be greener:

  • Interest in climate change and sustainable behavior: “I am environmentally conscious”; “I want to live a sustainable life as well as business in the future.”
  • Interest in learning about sustainable business practices: “Studying about energy from a business perspective”; “I’d like to know how a business can be greener.”
  • Interest in renewable energy and applications to business: “The prospect that I would be learning the basics of managing a transition to renewable energy was also very intriguing”; “Sustainability, renewable energy, and other modern business practices which fall within the realm of sustainable business”; as well as the development of green sources of electricity.
  • Having a personal connection to energy:  A family member working in a solar company, or a professor in another class talking about sustainability getting popular in business.

Asked to rate the effectiveness of the pedagogical approaches/activities used in the class, students provided the following information. Average ratings are presented in Figure 1 and Figure 2:

  • Over 80% from the class in 2022 and over 70% from the class in 2023 rated the final project a “4” in learning effectiveness (on a scale of 1-4, with 4=learned a lot and 1=did not learn anything at all).
  • From the class in 2022, 67% of respondents rated the Energy Newsroom, Reading Responses, and Guest Speakers a “4” in effectiveness.
  • From the class in 2023, 100% rated the class discussions and 71% rated the Cape Wind Town Hall Simulation a “4” in effectiveness.
  • 50% of respondents from the class in 2022 and 43% from the class in 2023 rated the course lectures a “4” in effectiveness. Class discussions were rated a “4” by 50% of respondents from the class in 2022.
  • Only 33% of respondents from the class in 2022 rated the En-ROADs simulation a “4”, and overall, it was rated the lowest of all class activities.
  • Only 43% of respondents from the class in 2023 rated the guest speakers a “4”, and overall, guest speakers were rated the lowest of all class activities. 

 Figure 1. 2022 respondents’ self-assessment of the course activities that they learned the most from. The question read: “On a scale of 1-4, how much do you think you learned from the following activities (1=I did not learn anything at all, 2=Did not learn anything, 3=Learned something, 4=I learned a lot)?

Figure 2. 2023 respondents’ self-assessment of the course activities that they learned the most from. The question read: “On a scale of 1-4, how much do you think you learned from the following activities (1=I did not learn anything at all, 2=Did not learn anything, 3=Learned something, 4=I learned a lot)? 

Overall, the students from the 2023 class were more satisfied with the quality of instruction. Their average ratings of the course activities are overall higher than those of the 2022 class. Asked how strongly they would recommend the course to other students (on a scale of 1-5, where 1=will most likely not recommend and 5=will most likely recommend), the average for the 2022 class was 4.2 and the average for the 2023 class was 5. Some of the unsolicited feedback at the end of the 2023 survey contained praise and gratitude. One student wrote: “This is one of the most interesting courses I have taken at AUBG. I am usually a very shy person and do not like interacting in classes, but this class was different.” This shows that the discussions were really stimulating and provided the opportunity for people who are shy and do not participate in class unless called upon to actively participate in the class. One contributing factor was definitely the small class size—having only seven students was conducive to more open and participatory/stimulating discussions, which afforded the opportunity for even shy students to participate. 

Other feedback from the 2023 students included more appreciation for the class and everything they learned. One student expressed their gratitude for getting exposed to energy as a topic. They shared: “Thank you for teaching us! If it wasn’t for this course, I’d never have the chance to interact with energy transitions in academia, and it really helped me gain a deeper understanding of the subject!” Another one said: “The course was very enjoyable; I learned a lot in this short time…The whole idea of how the grid functions was very blurry to me at the beginning, but now I understand it much better, along with many more things. As a result of this course, I subscribed to a daily newsletter by Bloomberg, so I am staying up-to-date with climate-related news. Thank you for this amazing course!” At the end of the dаy, knowing that the class had an impact on students’ understanding and appreciation of the subject, as well as the fact that they will continue to learn more and be curious about the topics raised in class, gives the professor the most satisfaction. A well-taught class is one that has a long-lasting impact on students and keeps their interest in the subject alive for many years. 

5. Discussion

Respondents from both classes enjoyed its interactive nature the most. The majority mentioned that they liked the discussions the most, as well as the overall “atmosphere and the encouragement of discussion.” The category that is often mentioned as well is the simulation or role playing—basically, any type of activity that gave students agency to express themselves and to get feedback from their classmates on what they had to share. Such activities were the En-ROADs simulation by MIT Climate Interactive, the FT game, and the case study on Cape Wind that simulated a townhall meeting discussion. Next, students mentioned the guest speakers—hearing alternative perspectives from experts in the field—from both industry and policy. Finally, students rated as most effective the newsroom (2023 class) and the final project presentations (2022 class). 

On the flip side—what students liked the least—was the number of written assignments for a one-credit course and the organization of the course for the 2022 class. One student said that it “felt a bit off at times, especially during the first 2-3 weeks. By the time everyone got used to Canvas and all of the rules for the assignments, the course was over.” When the class was taught in 2022 for the first time, both the professor and the students were new to Canvas, so it is not surprising that the course felt disjointed, especially at the beginning. For example, although the professor was given an institutional account, the Zoom link that was initially created was done with the instructor’s personal email address, not knowing that Zoom allows personal meetings for up to 40 minutes at a time. Since the class was 75 minutes long, the connection was lost in the middle of the class and students had to log back in to complete the first session. Although all students were able to join back in the second time, a few minutes of the class time were wasted logging back in. Since online teaching and Zoom capabilities were new to the professor, the teaching assistant, and the students, exploring all the available Zoom functions felt like a learning experience for everyone in the class. This is not something that happened the second time the class was taught. However, this experience brings home the point that with online teaching, it is very difficult to learn how to be perfectly accomplished without having the students in the audience. Many tutorials, instruction manuals, and help tools have been made available to professors for online teaching that are constantly being improved and becoming more and more sophisticated. Still, unless professors are able to apply them in the classroom itself, they are hard to master. Students also provided suggestions for course improvements. In 2022, respondents suggested that extra time be provided for discussions, thus suggesting that the course be offered as a three-credit one rather than a one-credit. 

In both 2022 and 2023, respondents suggested adding a written component and spending more time on the in-class interactive activities—the simulation and the role-playing case study on Cape Wind. One respondent from the class in 2022 said about the EN-ROADS simulation: “I thought that the En-Roads simulation could have been way more informative than it was. I had never come across this before, and I think it would have been nice to introduce the assignment earlier. Maybe an assignment to go with it would be a short policy paper about what their group stands for.” In a similar vein, a respondent from the 2023 class suggested, “Maybe for the Cape Wind Project, students should prepare in advance and have a small “debate” discussion to allow more information flow.” 

Respondents from both classes pointed out that they would have liked to have seen more emphasis placed on the business side of the transition—on the “managerial side of the transitions” and “adding more implications for the businesses as the main stakeholders discussed were consumers and governments.” Some respondents also suggested focusing more on specific industries as well as “expanding the scope to cover all aspects of sustainability.” 

Students suggested more time for discussions; unfortunately, a one-credit course does not allow for this. It is thus recommended that courses on energy be given more weight in the curriculum so that students can gain more out of each pedagogical approach, master the elements of activity-based learning, and thus acquire energy knowledge. 


Accelerating the decarbonization of the power sector and the most energy-intensive industries by ramping up clean energy generation, developing new energy technologies, and modernizing the grid are essential measures for meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. In addition, since energy is responsible for three-quarters of carbon emissions,[67] the share of renewables in global electricity generation must increase from today’s 29 percent to 60 percent by 2030.[68] Although much is being done to adopt renewable energy technologies, the speed and scale of this transition need to accelerate. And although wind and solar plants have become 70% and 89% cheaper in the last ten years, respectively, their capacity needs to exceed that of coal and gas in less than five years. Advancing education, workforce development, public awareness, and action are among the important recommendations for underpinning this historical transformation.[69] Therefore, in the implementation of the measures that need to be urgently taken, universities have an important role to play. 

Universities, however, have been shown as lagging behind companies in helping societies become more sustainable, mainly due to their reliance on reductionist and mechanist paradigms.[70] This needs to be changed by implementing sustainability measures both on campus and in the classroom, as well as by using pedagogical approaches that turn the subject of energy into an exciting topic to learn about and provoke student interest to keep learning and be engaged even after the course ends. 

Teaching about the management of energy transitions entails instructing about energy technology, policy, economics, and geopolitics, as well as the reasons for and implications of investment decisions. Students need to know the factors that impact not only investment decisions but also how certain policies impact business decisions; they need to understand the relationship between climate change, GHG emissions, and energy consumption and be able to make management recommendations on the adoption of new technologies. They should learn about the characteristics of past energy transitions and be able to discern the differentiating factors and also the similarities between those and the current energy transition. Some questions students should be able to address are related to the speed and scale of transitions and the factors that determine them. For example, while many authors show that past switches from one energy fuel to another were necessitated by factors such as cost, availability, or convenience, the current energy transition is led by the urgency for reducing the GHG impact of emissions from burning fossil fuels and also by an understanding of the finite nature of energy resources. For example, until recently, many readings focused primarily on the idea that fossil fuels will peak by the turn of this century and, therefore, alternatives need to be found. More recently, however, relying on new scientific methodologies and findings, scientists have been able to show that the anthropogenic impact of burning fossil fuels increases the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere beyond typical planetary limits, which has strengthened the relationship between climate and energy and increased the urgency of switching to alternative fuels and energy efficiency. 

This research made it clear that Gen Zs are greatly motivated to learn about topics related to sustainability, energy, and climate and really want to know what businesses can do to establish better practices, save energy, and reduce their impact on the climate. It is therefore of utmost importance to stimulate students’ interest in learning and to help them gain knowledge and skills that can equip them with the tools to lead the sustainability transition. 

A key limitation of this case study is the relatively low number of respondents (13 over both times the course was taught, or 24 students taking the course in total). Though the case study reveals key information on what pedagogical approaches students find most effective (and least effective), we should not draw any generalizable conclusions. Professors offering similar courses may want to keep this in mind and use it as a baseline for the teaching activities they use. 

In a future study, we recommend adding questions to the survey that are specific to the eleven non-content-based learning outcomes in an effort to identify the extent to which students developed any of the “soft” skills. Most importantly, what this research shows is that students like to be engaged throughout the learning process and that they really find the elements of active learning effective. Engaged students learn to work with others and share knowledge in order to come up with creative solutions as a group. After all, the current energy transition can only be advanced by developing strong scientific knowledge and blending it with the “soft” skills that are most useful for solving complex, interdisciplinary problems, such as climate change.

[1] Seth Borenstein, “Sky High: Carbon Dioxide Levels in Air Spike Past Milestone,” The Hill, June 3, 2022,

[2] United Nations Environment Programme. Emissions Gap Report (EGR) 2022: The Closing Window – Climate Crisis Calls for Rapid Transformation of Societies. Nairobi, 2022,

[3] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “The Road to the UAE: Informal Consultations by the COP 27 Presidency and the COP 28 Incoming Presidency,” March 9, 2023,

[4] Issa Ibrahim Berchin, Ana Regina de Aguiar Dutra, and José Baltazar Salgueirinho Osório de Andrade Guerra, “How Do Higher Education Institutions Promote Sustainable Development? A Literature Review,” Sustainable Development 29 no. 6 (2021): 1204–22,

[5] Janusz Nowotny, John Dodson, Sebastian Fiechter, Turgut M. Gür, Brendan Kennedy, Wojciech Macyk, Tadeusz Bak, Wolfgang Sigmund, Michio Yamawaki, and Kazi A. Rahman, “Towards Global Sustainability: Education on Environmentally Clean Energy Technologies,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 81 (2018): 2541–51. 2018,

[6] Tara C Kandpal and Lars Broman, “Renewable Energy Education: A Global Status Review,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 34 (2014): 300–324,

[7] R Cörvers, A. Wiek, J. de Kraker, D.J. Lang, and P. Martens, “Problem-Based and Project-Based Learning for Sustainable Development,” Sustainability Science: An Introduction, edited by H. Heinrichs, P. Martens, G. Michelsen, and A. Wiek, (2016): 349–58, Dordrecht: Springer,

[8] Jodie Birdman, Arnim Wiek, and Daniel J Lang, “Developing Key Competencies in Sustainability through Project-Based Learning in Graduate Sustainability Programs,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 23 no. 5 (2022): 1139–57,

[9] Linda Nilson, Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

[10] Linda Nilson and Ludwika A. Goodson, Online Teaching at Its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass - Wiley &Sons, 2018).

[11] Wendy Griswold, Oral S. Saulters, and Amelia G. Young Sanders, “The Future of Sustainability: A Participant Motivation Model for Higher Education, Research, and Practice,” Creative Education 09 no 3 (2018): 406–25,

[12] Michael Dimock, “Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins,” Pew Research Center, March 17, 2019,    

[13] Karin Kimbrough, “These Are the Sectors Where Green Jobs Are Growing in Demand,” World Economic Forum, September 23, 2021, 

[15] Lars Broman, “On the Didactics of Renewable Energy Education—Drawing on Twenty Years Experience,” Renewable Energy 5 no. 5–8 (1994): 1398–1405.

[16] Debra Rowe, “Education for a Sustainable Future,” Science 317 no. 5836 (2007): 323–24.

[17] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, The Belgrade Charter: A Framework for Environmental Education, 1975, http://unesdoc.  

[18] Tarah Wright, “University Presidents’ Conceptualizations of Sustainability in Higher Education,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 11no. 1 (2010): 61–73,

[19] Chuang Yang and Qi Xiu, “A Bibliometric Review of Education for Sustainable Development, 1992–2022,” Sustainability 15 no.14 (2023): 10823,

[20] Simon N Jorgenson, Jennie C. Stephens, and Beth White, “Environmental Education in Transition: A Critical Review of Recent Research on Climate Change and Energy Education,” Journal of Environmental Education 50 no. 3 (2019): 160–71,

[21] Tara C Kandpal and Lars Broman, “Renewable Energy Education: A Global Status Review,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 34 (2014): 300–324,

[23] Issa Ibrahim Berchin, Ana Regina de Aguiar Dutra, and José Baltazar Salgueirinho Osório de Andrade Guerra, “How Do Higher Education Institutions Promote Sustainable Development? A Literature Review,” Sustainable Development 29 no. 6 (2021): 1204–22,

[24] Fizza Anwer, “The Effect of Activity-Based Teaching Techniques on Student Motivation and Academic Achievement,” Journal of Education and Educational Development 6 no. 1 (2019): 154–70.

[25] Wendy Griswold, Oral S. Saulters, and Amelia G. Young Sanders, “The Future of Sustainability: A Participant Motivation Model for Higher Education, Research, and Practice,” Creative Education 09 no.03 (2018): 406–25,

[27] Jacob L Cayanus and Matthew M. Martin, “Teacher Self-Disclosure: Amount, Relevance, and Negativity,” Communication Quarterly 56 no. 3 (2008): 325–41,

[29] Fizza Anwer, “The Effect of Activity-Based Teaching Techniques on Student Motivation and Academic Achievement,” Journal of Education and Educational Development 6 no.1 (2019): 154–70.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Eimear Fallon, Stephen Walsh, and Terry Prendergast, “An Activity-Based Approach to the Learning and Teaching of Research Methods: Measuring Student Engagement and Learning,” Irish Journal of Academic Practice 2 no.1 (2013).

[33] Linda Nilson, Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors 3rd ed, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

[34] J. R. McGrath, & G. MacEwan, “Linking pedagogical practices of activity-based teaching,” The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 6 no.3 (2011): 261 274.

[35] Ken Petress, “What Is Meant by Active Learning?,” Education 128 (2008): 566-569.

[36] B Duch, Deborah Allen, and Harold White, “Problem Based Learning: Preparing Students to Succeed in the 21 St Century,” Teaching Excellence 9 no. 7 (1998),

[37] Deborah E Allen, Richard S Donham, and Stephen A Bernhardt, “Problem-Based Learning,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 2011 (128): 21–29,

[38] Xiaomei Du and Jie Han, “A Literature Review on the Definition and Process of Project-Based Learning and Other Relative Studies,” Creative Education 7 (2016): 1079–83,

[39] Heather Coffey, “Project-Based Learning,” electronic document, 2008,

[40] Arnim Wiek, Angela Xiong, Katja Brundiers, and Sander Van der Leeuw, “Integrating Problem-and Project-Based Learning into Sustainability Programs: A Case Study on the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 15 no. 4 (2014): 431–49.

[41] R., A. Cörvers, Wiek, J. de Kraker, D.J. Lang, and P. Martens, “Problem-Based and Project-Based Learning for Sustainable Development,” Sustainability Science: An Introduction, edited by H. Heinrichs, P. Martens, G. Michelsen, and A. Wiek, (2016): 349–58. Dordrecht: Springer,

[42] Arnim Wiek, Angela Xiong, Katja Brundiers, and Sander Van der Leeuw, “Integrating Problem-and Project-Based Learning into Sustainability Programs: A Case Study on the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 15 no. 4 (20144): 431–49,

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ali Whitmer, Laura Ogden, John Lawton, Pam Sturner, Peter M Groffman, Laura Schneider, David Hart, “The Engaged University: Providing a Platform for Research That Transforms Society,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8 no. 6 (2010): 314–21.

[46] Katherine D Arbuthnott, “Education for Sustainable Development beyond Attitude Change,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 10 no. 2 (2009): 152–63,

[48] Luanne W Lewis. “Student Motivation for Pursuing a Minor in Environmental Sustainability.” University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 2013,

[49] Ibid.

[50] “Global Green Skills Report 2022,” LinkedIn, accessed August 1, 2023,

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Shirley Vincent, Katelyn Dutton, Rica Santos, and Lilah Sloane, “Interdisciplinary Environmental and Sustainability Education and Research: Leadership and Administrative Structures,” A research study conducted for the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors, 2014,

[54] “Global Green Skills Report 2022,” LinkedIn, accessed August 1, 2023, op. cit.

[55] Lisa Jacobson, “One Year Later: The Inflation Reduction Act Is Driving the Clean Energy Transformation,” Business Council for Sustainable Energy, August 16, 2023,

[56] Imran Amed, Anita Balchandani, Marco Beltrami, Achim Berg, Saskia Hedrich, and Felix Rölkens, “The Influence of ‘Woke’ Consumers on Fashion,” McKinsey, February 12, 2019,

[59] Ibid.

[60] Greg Petro, “Gen Z Is Emerging as the Sustainability Generation,” Forbes, April 30, 2021.

[61] “About AUBG,” American University in Bulgaria, 2023,;

 “Bachelor’s Degrees,” 2023.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005,

[64] Linda Nilson, Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

[65] Ibid.

[66] Jodie Birdman, Arnim Wiek, and Daniel J Lang, “Developing Key Competencies in Sustainability through Project-Based Learning in Graduate Sustainability Programs,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 23 no. 5 (2022): 1139–57,


[67] Hannah Ritchie, “Sector by Sector: Where Do Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Come From?” Our World in Data, September 18, 2020,

[68] “Renewables 2020,” IEA, accessed August 1, 2023,

[69] Wendy Griswold, Oral S. Saulters, and Amelia G. Young Sanders, “The Future of Sustainability: A Participant Motivation Model for Higher Education, Research, and Practice,” Creative Education 09 no. 03 (2018): 406–25,

[70] Rodrigo Lozano, Rebeka Lukman, Francisco J. Lozano, Donald Huisingh, and Wim Lambrechts, “Declarations for Sustainability in Higher Education: Becoming Better Leaders, through Addressing the University System,” Journal of Cleaner Production 48 (2013): 10–19,


: 22-September-2023

Reviews (0)


Related Research

©2023 Trends Research & Advisory, All Rights Reserved.