EM SC 240N
Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

EM SC 240N Syllabus


Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture Summer 24

This syllabus is divided into several sections. You can read it sequentially by scrolling down the length of the document, or by clicking on any of the links below to “jump” to a specific section. It is essential that you read the entire document as well as the material covered in the Course Orientation. Together these serve as our course "contract."


dan kasper

Dan Kasper, Instructor

  • For a full introduction, see the "Meet the Instructor" page.
  • A note about contacting me: The best way to reach me without an appointment is via email. Please use Canvas email (aka the "Inbox" on Canvas; see below for details). I check my email frequently and will respond to you within 1 business day. As you will see in the course orientation, if you have a question regarding course content, I request that you use the discussion board. This may help other students who have the same or a similar question.
  • Office Hours: I will check for and reply to messages at least once each workday, and some weekends. Please contact me to make an appointment if you’d like to speak to me at a given time. I am flexible and will make every effort to accommodate your schedule.

Course Overview

First and foremost, it is important to understand that all course content is delivered online, and there are no specific meeting times. You will have weekly assignment deadlines, but unlike a face-to-face course, you are not required to meet at a specific time. I am happy to schedule a meeting with you, and you are welcome to discuss course content on- or offline with other students, but that is not required.

This course will guide you through an engaging exploration and critical evaluation of selected media (a few articles, one book, and one film) in contemporary culture on topics related to energy and/or sustainability. All selected media are contemporary (released within the past few years) and are intended for a general audience.

You will consider the subject matter in light of humanistic values, where the science, ideas, and assertions presented in the selected media are critically evaluated relative to the viability of our planet’s ability to support life. Opening lessons cover the foundational science of energy and sustainability, with a global perspective and consideration of the human dimension. The science is presented without technical jargon or advanced mathematics, to promote a genuine and sound understanding of these essential concepts for college-level students of all academic backgrounds. You will also explore commonly used persuasive strategies in order to more easily identify them when critically analyzing content, and will identify legitimate sources of information. The subsequent lessons focus on critical evaluation of the selected media, utilizing the foundational content as a springboard for analysis.

Throughout the course, you will be asked to analyze your own thinking, and how it evolves as you encounter course content. You are strongly encouraged to be open to new ideas and ways of thinking that do not coincide with opinions and knowledge you currently hold. The focus should be on the scientific basis of arguments presented, not rhetorical content, political perspectives, or cultural perspectives.

Course Objectives

After completing this course, students will:

  • possess the foundational science knowledge necessary to evaluate contemporary topics related to energy and sustainability, from the perspective of universal humanity on a planet of finite resources;
  • be prepared to develop observations, questions, and opinions on topics related to energy and sustainability and to self-express them, in both written and oral presentations, to others with different backgrounds and points of view;
  • be skilled critical readers of energy and sustainability subject matter, knowing how to raise (and answer) questions related to scientific clarity and soundness and how to test assumptions and scope of arguments, especially as related to the inclusion of humanistic values and planetary limits;
  • be willing and able to avoid entrenched ideology-based positions on issues related to energy and sustainability, and to develop, instead, a personal position based on science and data with a humanistic perspective;
  • know of credible resources and organizations for ongoing research related to energy and sustainability.

Please note: This course requires you to maintain a web presence; you may create a web page, post to a blog, share videos and engage in other Internet participation activities as necessary. You may be encouraged by team members to participate in online activities that are widely accessible to everyone, including others outside of Penn State.

Required Course Materials

In addition the info in Canvas, students will be required to purchase the following materials (please note that required materials differ from semester to semester):

Summer 2024

  • You must read one of the following books for this course. Pick whichever one you would prefer to read:
    • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert. Picador, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8050-9299-8 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-8050-9979-9 (e-book).  (Purchased from a vendor of student's choice)
    • Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Elizabeth Kolbert, Crown, 2021. ISBN 978-0-59313627-0 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-5931-3629-4 (e-book) (Purchased from a vendor of student's choice)
  • Required Software: Yellowdig Discussion Platform - cost: $12.95 for the semester

  • You will also be required to watch the film Interstellar (2014), Warner Brothers Pictures and Paramount Pictures, directed by Christopher Nolan. The movie is available for free to Penn State students, and I have integrated a link to it on Canvas. Otherwise, you will be responsible for obtaining your own copy for viewing via a streaming service or purchase of a digital or DVD version.
  • (Optional) State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, Worldwatch Institute (ISBN: 978-1-59726-415-0 (Print) 978-1-61091-458-1 (Online))

Assistance with Textbooks

Penn State honors and values the socioeconomic diversity of our students. If you require assistance with the costs of textbooks for this course, please contact your academic advisor. For additional needs, related to socioeconomic status, please visit Project Cahir or visit the Office of Student Care and Advocacy at 222 Boucke Building or call 814-863-2020.

Course Expectations

On average, most students spend 8-12 hours per week working on course assignments for a 3 credit course, and this course has been designed to adhere to that standard. Your workload may be more or less depending on your prior experience with online platforms and prior expertise/experience. The workload may vary significantly from week to week as the nature of the course content changes. Note that the course is a little heavier in the first Module (Lessons 1 - 5) than in later modules.

It is critical that you do not wait until the last minute to do the coursework - not only will this negatively impact your grade, it will negatively impact your learning. Deadlines are firm, but I realize that life sometimes gets in the way, so will be as reasonable as possible if truly extenuating circumstances arise. These will be addressed on a case-by-case basis and may require documentation.

We have worked hard to make this the most effective and convenient educational experience possible. You will succeed if you are diligent about keeping up with the class schedule and if you take advantage of opportunities to communicate with me, as well as with your fellow students. In spite of the work being done mostly on your own, I want you to feel like you are embarking on this academic and personal journey with others (because you are!). The course content has been designed to facilitate this through the use of discussion boards and frequent communication from me. I hope that I helped you feel welcome, and part of a group!


The course is graded on a straight scale using these percentage ranges:

Letter Grades and Percentages
A 93-100%
A- 90-92.99%
B+ 87-89.99%
B 83-86.99%
B- 80-82.99%
C+ 77-79.99%
C 70-76.99
D 60-69.99%
F <60%

Deferred Grades

If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor. To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (email is fine) to your instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. It is up to your instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If for any reason, the course work for the deferred grade is not completed by the assigned time, a grade of "F" will be automatically entered on your transcript.

Late Policy

Late work is not accepted, except under extenuating circumstances. If you need to request an exception due to a personal or medical emergency, please contact me. Such requests will be considered on a case by case basis. Course lessons are available to you in advance. It is your responsibility to plan ahead and work ahead if necessary to accommodate your personal schedule. This flexibility is one of the great features of online learning. Take advantage of it!

There are a few exceptions to the late policy described above:

  • You are allowed two "freebies." You can use each freebie on one assignment this semester. You cannot utilize this for Yellowdig or for the Final Project assignments. A freebie buys you exactly one extra week to hand in the assignment. If you use this, you must inform me by the due date, but please let me know as far in advance as you can (at least half a day or so). I am often not available "at the last minute." An email notification is fine.

EM SC 240N Course Schedule

For a full list of assignments, see the Canvas Calendar.

  • MODULE 1: CORE CONCEPTS (Weeks 2-5)
    • Lesson 1: Energy and Sustainability (Week 2)
    • Lesson 2: Fundamental Sustainability Considerations and Critical Thinking (Week 3)
    • Lesson 3: Specific Sustainability Issues (Week 4)
    • Lesson 4: Energy Sources In-Depth (Week 5)
    • Lesson 5: Rhetorical Analysis (Week 6)
    • Lesson 6: Analysis of Artifact (Week 7)
    • Lesson 7: The Sixth Extinction, Part I; Final Project Proposal (Week 8)
    • Lesson 8: The Sixth Extinction, Part II (Week 9)
    • Lesson 9: Analysis of Sixth Extinction, Final Project Rough Draft (Week 10)
    • Lesson 10: Interstellar, Final Project Peer Review (Week 11)
  • FINAL PROJECT (Weeks 12 - 13)
    • Final Project Work Period (Week 12)
    • Final Project Final Draft (Week 13)


Technical Requirements

For this course, we recommend the minimum technical requirements outlined on the World Campus Technical Requirements page, including the requirements listed for same-time, synchronous communications. If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the IT Service Desk.

Internet Connection

Access to a reliable Internet connection is required for this course. A problem with your Internet access may not be used as an excuse for late, missing, or incomplete coursework. If you experience problems with your Internet connection while working on this course, it is your responsibility to find an alternative Internet access point, such as a public library or Wi-Fi ® hotspot.


This course must be viewed using the latest version of Firefox, Safari, Chrome, or Edge. Internet Explorer is not supported. If you use any other browser, or if you are not using the latest version of your browser, some pages containing equations may not render properly. In addition, javascript must be enabled for equations to render properly. If you have any issues with equations not rendering properly, please update your browser to the latest version or try using a different browser. If you need additional technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the HelpDesk (for World Campus students) or the IT Service Desk (for students at all other campus locations).

Penn State E-mail Accounts

All official communications from Penn State are sent to students' Penn State e-mail accounts. Be sure to check your Penn State account regularly, or forward your Penn State e-mail to your preferred e-mail account, so you don't miss any important information.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest, and responsible manner. Academic integrity is a basic guiding principle for all academic activity at Pennsylvania State University, and all members of the University community are expected to act in accordance with this principle. 

According to Penn State policy  G-9: Academic Integrity, an academic integrity violation is “an intentional, unintentional, or attempted violation of course or assessment policies to gain an academic advantage or to advantage or disadvantage another student academically.” Unless your instructor tells you otherwise, you must complete all course work entirely on your own, using only sources that have been permitted by your instructor, and you may not assist other students with papers, quizzes, exams, or other assessments. If your instructor allows you to use ideas, images, or word phrases created by another person (e.g., from Course Hero or Chegg) or by generative technology, such as ChatGPT, you must identify their source. You may not submit false or fabricated information, use the same academic work for credit in multiple courses, or share instructional content. Students with questions about academic integrity should ask their instructor before submitting work.

Students facing allegations of academic misconduct may not drop/withdraw from the affected course unless they are cleared of wrongdoing (see G-9: Academic Integrity). Attempted drops will be prevented or reversed, and students will be expected to complete coursework and meet course deadlines. Students who are found responsible for academic integrity violations face academic outcomes, that can be severe, and put themselves at jeopardy for other outcomes which may include ineligibility for the Dean's List, pass/fail elections, and grade forgiveness. Students may also face consequences from their home/major program and/or The Schreyer Honors College.

Please also see Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity Procedures, which this course adopts. To learn more, see Penn State’s “Academic Integrity Training for Students.

Course Copyright

All course materials students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. Students may use course materials and make copies for their own use as needed, but unauthorized distribution and/or uploading of materials without the instructor’s express permission is strictly prohibited. University Policy AD 40, the University Policy Recording of Classroom Activities and Note-Taking Services addresses this issue. Students who engage in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials may be held in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct, and/or liable under Federal and State laws. For example, uploading completed labs, homework, or other assignments to any study site constitutes a violation of this policy.

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University's educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Student Disability Resources (SDR) website provides the contact information for every Penn State campus. For further information, please visit the Student Disability Resources website.

To receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation. See Student Disability Resources: Applying for Services. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.

Change in Normal Campus Operations

In case of weather-related delays or other emergency campus disruptions or closures at the University, this online course will proceed as planned. Your instructor will inform you if there are any extenuating circumstances regarding content or activity due dates in the course due to these delays or closures. If you are affected by a weather-related emergency, please contact your instructor at the earliest possible time to make special arrangements.

Reporting Educational Equity Concerns

Penn State takes great pride in fostering a diverse and inclusive environment for students, faculty, and staff. Acts of intolerance, discrimination, or harassment due to age, ancestry, color, disability, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religious belief, sexual orientation, or veteran status are not tolerated (Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance) and can be reported through Educational Equity via Report Bias.

Counseling and Psychological Services

Many students at Penn State face personal challenges or have psychological needs that may interfere with their academic progress, social development, or emotional wellbeing.  The university offers a variety of confidential services to help you through difficult times, including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, consultations, online chats, and mental health screenings.  These services are provided by staff who welcome all students and embrace a philosophy respectful of clients’ cultural and religious backgrounds, and sensitive to differences in race, ability, gender identity, and sexual orientation.  Services include the following: 

Counseling and Psychological Services at University Park  (CAPS): 814-863-0395
Counseling Services at Commonwealth Campuses
Penn State Crisis Line (24 hours/7 days/week): 877-229-6400
Crisis Text Line (24 hours/7 days/week): Text LIONS to 741741

Military Personnel

Veterans and currently serving military personnel and/or spouses with unique circumstances (e.g., upcoming deployments, drill/duty requirements, disabilities, VA appointments, etc.) are welcome and encouraged to communicate these, in advance if possible, to the instructor in the case that special arrangements need to be made.

Connect Online with Caution

Penn State is committed to educational access for all. Our students come from all walks of life and have diverse life experiences. As with any other online community, the lack of physical interaction in an online classroom can create a false sense of anonymity and security. While one can make new friends online, digital relationships can also be misleading. Good judgment and decision-making are critical when choosing to disclose personal information with others whom you do not know. 

Deferred Grades

If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time for reasons that are beyond your control, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor, following Penn State Deferred Grade Policy 48-40. To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to the instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. Non-emergency permission for filing a deferred grade must be requested before the beginning of the final examination period.  It is up to the instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If permission is granted, you will work with the instructor to establish a communication plan and a clear schedule for completion within policy.  If, for any reason, the coursework for the deferred grade is not complete by the assigned time, a grade of "F" will be automatically entered on your transcript.


This course will be conducted entirely online. There will be no set class meeting times, but you will be required to complete weekly assignments with specific due dates. Many of the assignments are open for multiple days, so it is your responsibility to complete the work early if you plan to travel or participate in national holidays, religious observances, or university-approved activities.  If you need to request an exception due to a personal or medical emergency, contact the instructor directly as soon as you are able. Such requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

In EMS, inclusivity is one of our core values. We prioritize fostering a diverse and equitable community where each member knows they belong here and is inspired to succeed. We encourage everyone in our EMS community to be actively engaged in fostering this ideal, and all members of this class should contribute to a respectful, welcoming, and inclusive environment and interact with civility. Our commitment to inclusivity aligns with Penn State’s values and policies. 

To learn more, visit EMS Educational Equity.  Here, you will find information about the EMS ALLWE initiative, the Rainbow EMS Network, Anti-Racism, active ally-ship, bystander intervention, and more. The site also has resources for where to turn if you need assistance and links to University references.  Also, contact your EMS department’s Associate Head for DEI for more information about department initiatives. 

Mandated Reporting Statement

Penn State’s policies require me, as a faculty member, to share information about incidents of sex-based discrimination and harassment (discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, and retaliation) with Penn State’s Title IX coordinator or deputy coordinators, regardless of whether the incidents are stated to me in person or shared by students as part of their coursework. For more information regarding the University's policies and procedures for responding to reports of sexual or gender-based harassment or misconduct, please visit Penn State's Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention & Response website.

Additionally, I am required to make a report on any reasonable suspicion of child abuse in accordance with the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law.


Please note that the specifics of this Course Syllabus can be changed at any time, and you will be responsible for abiding by any such changes. Changes to the syllabus shall be given to you in written (paper or electronic) form.