EM SC 240N
Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

EM SC 240N Syllabus


Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture - Spring 2023

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 material covered in the Course Orientation. Together these serve as our course "contract."


dan kasper

Haley Sankey, Instructor for SP23

  • 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. I check my email frequently and will respond to you within one 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. I am generally available for appointments weekday evenings and weekends.

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.

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

Students will be required to purchase the following materials (please note that required materials differ from semester to semester):

Spring 2023

  • 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)
  • 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 visit the Office of Student Care and Advocacy at 120 Boucke Building or call 814-863-4926. For additional needs, related to socioeconomic status, please visit Project Cahir.

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 help you feel welcome, and part of a group!

Assignments and Grading

Grading breakdown is as follows:

  • Personal Introduction (2%). One of your Orientation assignments is to introduce yourself to the rest of the class and the instructor. I want this course to be personalized as much as possible, so this is important. This is an easy grade - just make sure you fully participate and get it done on time.
  • Content quizzes (32%, which is 4% for each quiz). You will have a quiz most weeks that has new learning content. This includes the Orientation week, as well as the core energy and sustainability content in Module 1. You will also be quizzed on the content of the book, which is meant to assure that you are completing all course material. The quizzes are not designed to be "tricky," but will require you to thoughtfully analyze the course material. All quizzes carry the same weight. You are only allowed to take each quiz one time unless otherwise noted. The quizzes in Module 1 will NOT be timed. Untimed quizzes can be saved and resumed at a later time and save automatically as you fill them out. The quizzes in other modules WILL be timed. This will be indicated on the quiz and during the lesson.
  • Journal entries (20%, a little over 2% per entry). You will create a personal blog to use as a journal. You will share all journal content with me, but you can control whether or not anyone else sees individual journal entries. The journal entries vary in content but are primarily designed so you can evaluate the evolution of your own thinking, and to critically analyze content in the selected media. All journal entries have the same weight. You will have a journal entry due most weeks. Your lowest journal entry grade will be dropped unless otherwise noted.
  • Discussion boards (20%, which is 4% for each). The discussion boards will vary in content. They are primarily designed to facilitate discussion of the scientific and/or rhetorical content of the selected media. There will also be a discussion board for your final project.
  • Self-Reflection Paper (10%). You will write a paper describing the evolution of your thinking as you read the book. The goal of this assignment is for you to reflect on how your own thinking about the book's content changed (or if not, why not), in particular, anything that challenged or confirmed the way you viewed the topic prior to reading the book.
  • Final Project (15%). For your Final Project, you will propose a movie, providing descriptions of the overview, plot, purpose, scientific content, and rhetorical content. The goal is for you to think about how to effectively present a message, even if that message has a bias. You can create a trailer for extra credit. This can be done individually or as a group. I strongly suggest you do it as a group - this reduces the individual burden (the project deliverables are identical whether you do it alone or in the group) AND working in a group is a great way to learn and get to know other students. Plus, all groups will receive 5% extra credit (score will be multiplied by 1.05) on their Final Project final submission grade, not to exceed 100%. This project consists of three (3) parts:
    • Final Project Proposal (5% of Final Project grade, 0.75% of overall grade)
    • Final Project Full Rough Draft (20% of Final Project grade, 3% of overall grade)
    • Final Project Final Draft (75% of Final Project grade, 11.25% of overall grade)
  • Extra credit (up to 3%). You have two ways to earn extra credit in this course:
    • There will be a number of extra credit quizzes available throughout the semester. They are designed to help you dig a little deeper into the content. Combined, they will be worth up to 2% extra on your final grade. They are weighted equally.
    • You can earn up to 1% extra credit by creating a trailer, or at least describing a trailer, for your Final Project. You can use any applicable application to create this, such as WeVideo (a collaborative video editing/creating software), a narrated PowerPoint, a description on a website or Google Doc, or another online format. This is optional, of course.

A note about extra credit:

  • Due to gradebook limitations, getting less than 100% on the extra credit quizzes will appear to drop your grade. This is because instead of having 100% available plus a maximum of 3% optional bonus, the gradebook has a total of 103%. Thus, when your grade drops if you get less than a 100% on extra credit, it is dropping relative to 103%, not 100%.
  • For example, if you get a 100% on every assignment this semester but skip all of the extra credit, you would get a 100% for the course. But as I put in zeros for the extra credit, your grade drops, but that only means that you are going to get less than 103%.

Final overall grades will be determined based on the grades of these assignments. So that you know where you stand, all grades will be posted after each assignment is graded, and a running total will be provided. You should be able to track your progress and calculate your approximate average as the course goes along.

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%

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:

  • First, your lowest individual Journal entry grade is dropped unless otherwise noted, as indicated above.
  • Second, you are allowed two "freebies." You can use each freebie on one assignment this semester. You cannot utilize this for a discussion board 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. An email notification is fine.
  • Third, if you hand in your Self-Reflection Paper up to one week past the due date, you will receive a 10% deduction on your assignment grade. It will not be accepted after this one week.

EM SC 240N Course Schedule

imagePrintable Schedule

Below you will find a tentative summary of the primary learning activities for this course. Use this schedule below to find time frames. This is subject to slight change - refer to the calendars for the most up-to-date due dates.

Readings: Online materials

Orientation quiz (must get 100% to unlock other content)

Discussion board: Personal Introductions

Subscribe to discussion boards

Start Reading Lesson 1 Content

WEEK 2: Energy and Sustainability
Readings: Online materials

Content quiz

Journal: Submit sample journal entry

(Optional) Extra credit quiz

Start Reading Lesson 2

Week 3: Fundamental Sustainability Considerations and Critical Thinking
Readings: Online materials

Content quizzes

Two Journal Entries: Evolution/challenge of thinking

(Optional) Extra credit quizzes

WEEK 4: Specific Sustainability Issues
Readings: Online materials

Content quiz

Journal: Evolution/challenge of thinking

(Optional) Extra credit quiz

Week 5: Energy Sources In-Depth 
Readings: Online materials

Content quiz

Journal: Evolution/challenge of thinking

(Optional) Extra credit quiz

Start Reding Lesson 5

Week 6: Rhetorical Analysis 
Readings: Online materials

Content quiz

Journal: Evolution/challenge of thinking.

(Optional) Extra credit quiz

Journal: Critical analysis of artifact (Cannot be dropped)

Discussion board: Critical analysis of artifact Part 1

week 7: analysis of artifact
Readings: Online materials

Journal: Analysis of Artifact 1

(Optional) Determine Final Project Groups

week 8: analysis of artifact
Readings: Online materials

Discussion board: Critical analysis of artifact Part 1

Discussion board: Critical analysis of artifact Part 2

Journal: Preliminary Thoughts on Book Topic (Cannot be dropped)

(Optional) Determine Final Project Groups

Week 9: The sixth extinction, Part I
Readings: The Sixth Extinction, Ch. 1 - 7, pp. 1 - 147

Content quiz

Journal: Evolution of thinking

week 10: The sixth extinction, Part II
Readings: The Sixth Extinction, Ch. 8 - 13, pp. 148 - 269

Final Project Proposal

Content quiz

Journal: Evolution of thinking

Discussion board: Critical analysis of the book

week 11: Analysis of the sixth extinction

Readings: None

Discussion board: Critical analysis of the book

Discussion board: Rhetorical analysis of the book

Final Project rough draft

MODULE 4: INTERSTELLAR (Weeks 12 - 13)
week 12: Interstellar and self-reflection paper
VIDEO: Interstellar, full movie

Self-Reflection Paper

Discussion board Post 1: Scientific analysis

week 13: Interstellar
Readings: None

Discussion forums Post 2: Scientific Analysis

Final Project Full Rough Draft

FINAL PROJECT (Weeks 14 - 15)
Week 14: Final Project 

Final Project Final Draft

Week 15: Final Project 

Discussion board on Final Project Posts 1 and 2

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 HelpDesk (for World Campus students) or the IT Service Desk (for students at all other campus locations).

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.

Mixed Content

This site is considered a secure web site which means that your connection is encrypted. We do however link to content that isn't necessarily encrypted. This is called mixed content. By default, mixed content is blocked in Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome. This may result in a blank page or a message saying that only secure content is displayed. Follow the directions on our Technical Requirements page to view the mixed content.


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).

Participation in Peer-to-Peer Activities

This course follows the Energy and Sustainability Policy programs' Constructive Participation in ESP Peer-Peer Activities policy for student participation in peer-to-peer activities in ESP courses, such as group discussions, team projects and peer reviews of another’s work. In all peer-to-peer learning activities, students are expected to participate constructively with others in the practice and development of effective communication skills. This means NO personal attacks, NO name calling, and NO threatening language of any kind. Consequences may include losing the opportunity to participate in (and earn credit for) all remaining peer-to-peer assignments for the duration of the course. Any instance of threatening language will be reported to the Penn State Office of Student Conduct.

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

This course follows the procedures for academic integrity of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Penn State defines academic integrity as "the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest and responsible manner." Academic integrity includes "a commitment not to engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation, or deception." In particular, the University defines plagiarism as "the fabrication of information and citations; submitting others' work from professional journals, books, articles, and papers; submission of other students' papers, lab results or project reports and representing the work as one's own." Penalties for violations of academic integrity may include course failure. 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 Office for Student Disability Resources website provides contact information for Campus Disability Coordinators at every Penn State campus. For further information, please visit the Office for Student Disability Resources website

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled. You will participate in an intake interview and provide documentation. See documentation guidelines at Applying for Services from Student Disability Resources. 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 camps 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 to foster 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 well-being.  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 to 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.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Respect

Penn State is “committed to creating an educational environment which is free from intolerance directed toward individuals or groups and strives to create and maintain an environment that fosters respect for others” as stated in Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance. All members of this class are expected to contribute to a respectful, welcoming, and inclusive environment and to interact with civility.

For additional information, see:

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. All changes will be communicated with you via e-mail, course announcement and/or course discussion forum.