Coursera: Energy, Environment, and Everyday Life

For a sample of what this course will include, see the video "Energy, Environment, and Everyday Life MOOC with University of Illinois Professor David Ruzic" -

This course teaches you everything you need to know about energy, the environment, and at least a number of things in everyday life. It starts by talking about energy itself and where it comes from. This includes how much we have, who has it, who uses it, and what that all means. The video clips are produced in a fast-paced multimedia format during which Professor Ruzic throws in fun and demonstrations. There are multiple-choice questions to check your understanding and some more in-depth exercises to guide you deeper into the subject.

After explaining the main things we use energy for – our cars and electronics! – fossil fuels are examined in detail. Want to really learn about fracking or pipelines? Watch these segments. The environmental effects of fossil fuels are taught as well. Global warming, acid rain, and geoengineering all are in this part of the course. Part of their solution is too. Renewables follow, with clips on solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biofuels, etc. You’ll even see Professor Ruzic in a corn field and in the middle of a stream showing how you could dam it up.

Finally, nuclear power is taught in detail – how it really works and what happens when it doesn’t work, as in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, as well as how we are making it today, which is shown here without political preconceptions. In this course, economics takes center stage. People will ultimately do whatever costs the least, so energy policy is most effective when it is targeted at the user’s wallet.

Throughout the course there are 24 segments on “How Things Work." These guides to everyday life are tremendously varied, covering everything from fireworks to making beer to what happens backstage at a theater. The course is designed to be enjoyable as well as informative. We hope you will take a look!


Course Orientation
You will become familiar with the course, your classmates, and our learning environment. The orientation will also help you obtain the technical skills required for the course.

Week 1: How It All Starts and Ends
The course starts by looking at the basic principles of energy sources at the level of the atoms and molecules. This shows how everything from wind energy to nuclear energy share the same basic concept. We then go on to blow some stuff up and explain the statistics of what forms of energy are used around the world – who has them, who uses them, and who produces them. “How Things Work” segments start with a bang (fireworks) and then get both louder (bell towers) and softer (silencers).

Week 2: Getting and Using the Power
Here we dig into the two most frequent uses of energy and how to make it into useful devices, namely, the engines in cars and making electricity. How exactly does an engine work, and are there ways to make them better? How do they tie into the basic physics from the first week? We also find out what is so “smart” about the electric grid and how it is changing over time. “How Things Work” features airports, hybrid cars, and really flashy electricity (i.e., lightning!).

Week 3: Why Coal Is Dirty
Fossil fuels still dominate the energy landscape, and this week we go into them deeply, starting with coal. What is it? Where does it come from? Who has it? Who uses it? What problems does it cause? We will explore global warming and, more importantly, what can be done about it. You get to control the world in a climate model and see how bad (or how good) the future can be. “How Things Work” takes you into a coal power plant, a trash transfer station, and a waste treatment plant, so grab your shovels and hard hat, and let’s dig in!

Week 4: Oil and Gas – With Us Forever?
Oil and natural gas are the most used and most popular energy sources in the world. What are they? Where do they come from? Who uses, needs, and makes them? All the facts and the controversies over pipelines and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are discussed in detail. All of this is tightly tied to economics so grab your wallets – you will really see where your money goes! "How Things Work” takes us to high places – an observatory, a cell phone tower, and a laser light show!

Week 5: Renewables – What Is New under the Sun
Renewable energy sources finally make an appearance this week. Here we will tell you about everything powered by the sun directly and indirectly. This includes photo-voltaic, passive solar design, wind, and biofuels. Again, their inner working, what is needed, and how much it costs are the focus. You will see Prof. Ruzic make moonshine and show you how you can, too. “How Things Work” takes you to an actual windmill and brewery, and, just for fun, an ice skating rink.

Week 6: More Renewables and Your Radioactive World
We finish up renewables this week by discussing those coming from water – hydropower, geothermal, waves, and tides. You will even see Prof. Ruzic walking on water. Then, the world of the nucleus is opened up to you. What is radioactivity and how much should be feared? What is the basis for fission and how does a power plant differ from an atomic bomb? “How Things Work” looks at the visual world – from why the sky is blue to how a 3D IMAX movie system makes it seem like you are really there.

Week 7: Nuclear Power Problems and Solutions
This week covers the heart of nuclear power. We will follow the fuel from the ground and into the reactors. We also cover the major accidents in the history of nuclear power in detail. Do you remember Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and/or Fukushima? Do you want to understand in detail what worked and what did not, how much is costs, and if it is all worthwhile? Then be sure to watch the videos this week. “How Things Work” takes a lighter view – we visit a football stadium, go backstage at a theater, and even peer into the mind by exploring brain-scanning MRIs.

Week 8: Our Future Is Bright!
What does the future hold? We’ll start with how to hold the spent nuclear fuel and then talk about the modern “third generation” reactors being built today that have safety systems requiring no mechanical or human intervention. This leads to reactors that can make more fuel than they use and also to nuclear fusion – the energy source of the sun. “How Things Work” explores cooking/grilling, how microwave ovens work, and super computers, taking you to arguably the largest and fastest computer in the world.

0 Student
Cost Free Online Course (Audit)
Provider Coursera
Language English
Certificates Paid Certificate Available
Calendar 8 weeks long
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What are MOOCs?
MOOCs stand for Massive Open Online Courses. These are free online courses from universities around the world (eg. Stanford Harvard MIT) offered to anyone with an internet connection.
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To register for a course, click on "Go to Class" button on the course page. This will take you to the providers website where you can register for the course.
How do these MOOCs or free online courses work?
MOOCs are designed for an online audience, teaching primarily through short (5-20 min.) pre recorded video lectures, that you watch on weekly schedule when convenient for you.  They also have student discussion forums, homework/assignments, and online quizzes or exams.

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