Paul Imbertson’s Grand Challenge course Power Systems Journey: Making the Invisible Visible and Actionable encourages students to become informed voters and consumers.

A Powerful Journey

CSE teaching professor encourages cleaner energy production

Paul Imbertson has a simple motto:

“Talk about real things. Do real work. Work together.”

He and his students have taken that message around the globe.

As a teaching professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, he runs a class called Power Systems Journey: Making the Invisible Visible and Actionable with Jonee Brigham, an architect and artist in the College of Design. It tracks how humans generate, transmit, and use energy.

Imbertson describes it as a quest to “open students’ eyes to the electric power grid—not just in the technical sense, but in a society sense, economic sense, and a metaphorical sense.”

Students arrive knowing little more than how to flip a light switch. They trace energy flow backwards to the Gopher campus substation to the coal-burning power plant to the mines of Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

They take field trips, make GIS maps, and share their findings with visitors at the Bell Museum.

Imbertson compares the class to the “hero’s journey” described by mythologist Joseph Campbell. Students end up transformed by the experience and see the world with new eyes.

From study abroad to a life's work

For Imbertson, the class is part of a larger journey—blazing a path toward cleaner energy production.

He also coteaches a class called Pathways to Renewable Energy. In another course called The New Energy of Scandinavia, he took students abroad on an intensive three-week examination of renewable energy production. Students toured a geothermal plant in Iceland, wind farms and a turbine factory in Denmark, and hydroelectric facilities in Norway.

According to Imbertson, about 200 students have taken the course—and well over half of them now work in power and renewable energy.

Imbertson has organized many such outreach efforts.

One is called Building Resources and Innovative Designs for Global Energy, or BRIDGE. Students built a wind turbine from scrap metal, PVC pipes found on the roadside, and electrical relays from an auto-salvage yard—and assembled the machine at Imbertson’s home. They donated the turbine to a small village in Nicaragua; he also took students to study the country’s renewable energy potential and inspired some of their Nicaraguan friends to study engineering.

“The point is not just to build a wind turbine,” said Imbertson.

“It’s to build relationships,” he noted.

His latest effort focuses on Kenya, where a friend aspires to create a renewable energy park.

Imbertson’s students helped erect solar panels and install a system for collecting methane from cow manure. The international program dovetails with another outreach program for local kids. Students from Washburn High School are experimenting with how to build cheap solar cells, and the hope is that what they learn can help the Kenya project.

“We’re building bridges,” said Imbertson.

“The important reason to do that—for engineers or anybody—is you can find out what’s on the other side of the bridge,” he said.

Written by Kermit Pattison

Read about CSE assistant professor Lana Yarosh's work on social isolation in "Networking for Humans."

Read about CSE professor Ellad Tadmor's approach to public policy in "Defending Science."