News Release

Duke Launches New Undergraduate Minor in Energy Engineering

by Nancy E. Oates

Fracking. High gas prices. Global warming. Oil pipelines. Affordable, efficient home heating and cooling. Massive storm-related power outages. The world has many energy problems and few places to learn how to solve them.

Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering has stepped up to help close the knowledge gap by offering a minor in energy engineering. Pratt students may apply beginning with the spring 2013 semester. Pratt professor Marc Deshusses, who co-chaired a team with associate professor Josiah Knight to create the minor, called energy “the defining issue of this century.”

“It’s hard to open a newspaper and not find something related to energy,” Deshusses said. “There is a lot of emphasis on energy generation, biofuels, solar energy and the environmental impact of our energy policies. Energy delivery and efficiency are also very current. Several wars can be traced back to energy conflicts.”

Nearly three years ago, Duke engineering dean Tom Katsouleas formed a committee to explore the best response to the pressing need to solve energy problems. Duke has taken a proactive approach to energy issues, both from a research and educational perspective, launching programs such as the university-wide Duke Energy Initiative and the Energy & Environment Certificate, a joint effort between Pratt and Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. But Katsouleas wanted to go further.

“There is a national need to provide students with a perspective and a set of broad analytical tools that will help them make the best decisions and advances in the interdisciplinary field that energy engineering is becoming,” Katsouleas said.

Deshusses documented that need by crafting a survey that he sent to about 300 energy engineering professionals, many of them Pratt alumni. The responses showed that 95 percent of respondents acquired their background in energy systems on the job. Two-thirds of the respondents noted a shortage of energy engineers in the field.

"The minor addresses a demand from the people who hire our students and from our graduates who are eager to move into these markets,” Deshusses said.

Whereas energy concentrations at other universities are geared toward a single energy sector – a program in renewable energy or petroleum energy, for instance – Pratt’s minor is broadly based, said Knight, co-director for the Energy & Environment Certificate and associate director of the Gendell Center for Engineering, Energy and the Environment.

“The courses necessarily have to be technical, but ours will equip students to understand a broad range of energy sources and technologies,” Knight said, “and to consider the ramifications for society and the environment, because energy choices have far-reaching consequences.”

The energy engineering minor consists of a core course, four technical electives that allow students to tailor the program to their individual interests, and a capstone design course. The electives fall under two categories – Generation & Delivery and Conversion & Efficiency – and cover such topics as bioenergy, modern power systems, power electronics and transportation energy. Pratt will allow up to two courses to be taken outside of Duke. 

Currently the minor is open only to engineering majors, to ensure that students have the engineering fundamentals necessary for the technical coursework. However, the courses are cross-listed with Duke’s Energy Initiative; non-engineering students add breadth to the discussions on energy initiatives, said Neal Simmons, a professor of the practice in the department of mechanical engineering hired specifically for his energy expertise. He will teach a course on energy in the built environment, which will include a trip to Athens, Ga., to see a small hydroelectric plant he and a group of investors own.

“We’re very much focused on engineering fundamentals, but we want to expand into societal impacts,” Simmons said. “Energy choices and decisions are not purely scientific or analytical. Other less-tangible parameters affect decision-making.”

Ultimately, Pratt aims to create an energy engineering major, Deshusses said.

“We expect this program will be very attractive to students and will be very successful.”

Learn more about the energy engineering minor at energy.pratt.duke.edu.

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