Learning about energy innovation online is a matter of course

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are an education revolution. Just a few years ago, more than 100,000 people participated in a single course on search engine design, and even techno-skeptic professors like me have taken notice. In fact, I see the MOOC approach as an ivory tower escape route as I try to do my part to meet our energy and climate obligations. That’s why I’m offering my Sustainable Energy Innovation course for free online through Canvas Network, with cash incentives to help spur sustainability innovation. 

Students in this eight-week experience will begin developing profitable social and technological innovations to tackle our energy and climate challenges. Hundreds of people are already signed up for the course, which begins Sept. 23. All of them will be asked to develop an innovative sustainability idea. There are teenagers, hipsters, soccer moms, professionals and retirees from dozens of countries and every continent not named Antarctica. Interactions across this smart grid of people will complement the course materials as participants try to make their ideas real.

Participation is free and so are the materials. There will be no busy work. The assignments are all designed to help students dream up and begin developing their own sustainable energy innovation. These innovations may be physical products, or they may be services. I even have some funding to support projects as students develop them. In the past, this funding has paid for things such as a solar oven, an infrared camera for energy audits and travel to speak with experts working on similar projects. What’s more, at least one project from this course, as voted on by participants, will receive up to $5,000 to continue their project work.

Other world-changing innovations have come from centralized programs. The Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb was a massive effort, but only a few dozen knew the big picture. Meeting our energy and climate obligations requires a similar, but more wide-ranging, effort. We need thousands of people in thousands of places with thousands of ideas -- and the courage to act on them. These are those people!

So how can you support them? A start is to participate in the course, and encourage other sustainability professionals to do so. The more real-world perspectives we have, the better. You may come up with a world-changing innovation. You might find future partners and employees. At a minimum, you will learn about sustainable energy and the innovation process.

You also can support these students by helping me figure out a long-term business model for the course. I’ll continue to provide my time, but the funding to support student innovations runs out after this offering. How can we keep the momentum going, getting even more people working on these innovations? Send me an e-mail -- I would love to have a few business-savvy partners who can help me answer this question.

Photocollage by GreenBiz Group