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Faculty Focus: Jeffrey Brownson

We recently caught up with Jeffrey Brownson, associate professor of energy and mineral engineering/materials science and engineering in the Penn State John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering. Jeffrey teaches courses for Penn State World Campus and offers insight into his background and interests.

Jeffrey Brownson
Jeffrey Brownson

Please give our readers a sense of your teaching background and how you arrived at your current position at Penn State.

I arrived in fall 2007, to Penn State’s Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering, where I research and teach now, as well. A few years later, I was approached to develop new online programs in sustainability online, and that drew me in to the online experience, partnering with the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. And so I have been teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in solar energy for the duration. I come from a family of educators, and so I really enjoy creating a rich and compelling experience for my students, both online and residential. As I entered into teaching online course materials, though, I was exposed to additional teaching and assessment strategies through my learning design team members, which have really increased my satisfaction in the process of teaching and hopefully also improved the environment that all of my students experience each year.

What are the current courses that you are teaching for Penn State World Campus?

I currently teach EME 810: Solar Resource Assessment and Economics, as a part of the Solar Option in the intercollege online Master of Professional Studies in Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems (RESS). EME 810 is a required course for the RESS program and is geared toward students working on graduate study part-time and from a distance. EME 810 provides students’ context for the drivers, frameworks, and requirements of solar energy evaluation that lead up to solar project development professionally.

Your current research focuses on solar resource assessment. Could you give our readers a sense of what that means?

All solar project development is local — there is no “best region” for solar in the country, and the American Southwest is not necessarily an ideal place to deploy solar for electricity production. In fact, some of the best opportunities for solar are in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast regions of the United States. But you would not really know that without my field of study in solar energy. Solar resource assessment deals with the collection and analysis of the flow of light coming down to us from the sun, called “shortwave irradiance.” Solar resource assessment is done to assess the investment opportunities and risk for solar project development (like solar photovoltaic projects to convert sunlight to electricity) in the face of economic constraints like energy policy, code, and the local price of electricity. We can also use solar resource assessment to inform the smart controls on the newer generation building controls systems (like the “Nest”) for better comfort in our homes and workplace. Finally, solar resource assessment can be used to inform agriculture and susceptibility of regions to forest fires. It has a pretty broad platform to provide services to society!

What can students who aren’t in your courses take away from your research? How do your studies impact them? How does this impact the world on a larger scale?

My research team regularly works at the intersection of solar energy systems assessment and associated fields, and as I mentioned, I have taught undergraduate and graduate students in solar project design in the context of a rapidly shifting energy context. Solar photovoltaics (PV) are now established global commodities, we buy PV modules internationally, and the cost of the technology is dropping dramatically every year. Also, solar electricity is being planned at the gigawatt scale internationally (major nuclear and coal power plant scales are 1 GW), a phenomenal success story. For those of us in the field, however, the term “solar” is inclusive of but goes far beyond “solar photovoltaics.” In my research and writings, I describe a broader field of “solar ecology” emerging in society, where solar energy is framed within the context of the environment, society, and technology — connecting science with design, business, lifestyle, health, and well-being. In solar ecology, we find that the important topics of food, water, and energy are linked, and solar energy is a dominant positive vehicle to support society as we transition to a low-carbon society of the next century.

In fact, solar ecology has been with us for all of human history. Three distinct cultures of design have evolved to address the systems question of solar energy: the culture of architecture and the built environment; agriculture (and, in turn, forestry) for food, structural materials, and bioenergy; and the culture of solar energy conversion systems (SECS — energy engineering) for heat and power — like solar photovoltaics. Each of these cultures is place-based, flow-based, and fully engaged with the water cycle as well as our food systems. Each of these cultures are on a path to be aligned and integrated within the framework of solar ecology. So I feel our research and teaching in my team is pretty neat, and important to society and the supporting environment in the long run. I hope others will come to see those same exciting opportunities, too, in the future.

You traveled to Iceland with both Penn State World Campus and resident students last year for a project. Can you explain some more details about that trip?

That trip was a part of the GREEN Program, a private firm hosting travel for students interested in a 10-day international experience that also holds important content in STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) and cultural relevance of the site being experienced. One of our Penn State alumni, Adam Phoebe (EME, Energy Engineering), is a leader in the program, and so this was a great experience to learn more about the program, as a faculty member, while seeing how our graduates can excel. The Iceland experience is focused on renewable energy from hydropower, biomass, and geothermal energy, as well as bringing the cultural relevance of Iceland’s energy policy strategies to bear. I also happen to have Icelandic heritage, and so this was a pretty great opportunity to also see a part of my cultural history.

Can you tell us about your work on SOLAR 2015?

I had the great opportunity to serve as the Conference Chair for SOLAR 2015, the National Solar Conference for the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), hosted at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel from July 27 to 30. ASES has worked with Penn State representatives to form an innovative affiliation, out of which the 60-year ASES Archives of solar literature will now be held in trust and curated by the Penn State Special Collections Library, and out of which we plan to expand opportunities for our new Emerging Professionals in Renewable Energy. ASES and Penn State hosted more than 200 solar and sustainability participants/speakers/students from around the nation, and from as far away as Burkina Faso in West Africa, which was great!

What have you learned from teaching Penn State World Campus students?

I have learned that World Campus students are as charged up and ready to be Penn State graduates as anyone in residence at any of our other campuses. The professionalism and drive of my graduate-level online students are exciting and extremely rewarding. I set the bar high for performance in all of my courses, and my Penn State World Campus students are right there, ready to do their best. It’s really a great way to connect to a bigger world out there, and to expand my own learning enrichment as I teach others.

What inspires you as a teacher?

I am inspired by the group creativity that I find in the process of growing living classroom environments with a team, from course concept up to active adaptation of a class cohort while teaching. I am inspired by my learning design peers who keep pushing me to shift my perspective and make the teaching experience fun, as well as efficient. I am inspired by my teaching colleagues who also openly share successes and challenges along the way to excellence. Finally, I am inspired by the enthusiasm that my students bring to my online classes, and the way that they embrace an open discussion to be a part of shaping the educational experiences that they are in.

What makes you smile?

My family makes me smile. I like the way that my whole family is in education one way or another, and it allows me to bring my work experience into my family experience in rewarding ways. That, and I do love it when someone whom I have taught finds that somehow their experience with me helped to land a solar energy career, and they send me a note of thanks. That’s some pretty special stuff too.