UT professor puts energy topics in TV spotlight

Michael Webber doing sequels to ‘Energy at the Movies,’ teaching online


University of Texas professor Michael Webber is coming to a screen near you.

PBS has ordered sequels to Webber’s pilot TV show, “Energy at the Movies: 70 Years of Energy on the Big Screen,” which already has been broadcast to a third of PBS’ national audience in 52 markets in 25 states.

More than 29,000 people worldwide have also signed up for Webber’s fall online course, Energy Technology & Policy, which is sponsored by edX, a nonprofit governed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but which also is bringing courses from other major institutions, including the University of Texas at Austin. UT’s involvement begins this fall and spring with a 15 professors teaching nine online courses.

Webber’s operation is not typical for professors, however. He has more than 15 graduate students as members of his UT research arm, Webber Energy Group, and a staff of four full-time media professionals and several part-timers to deliver what he calls “energy literacy.”

“This is kind of bizarre,” admits Webber, deputy director of UT’s Energy Institute. “I’m an engineering professor and I hired a whole media staff just for me.”

Webber’s efforts touch on everything from how best to teach “digital natives” — as he calls the current collegiate generation — to how students learn, to attempts to lower the cost of higher education. It also combines his expertise in energy with his love of movies and his familiarity with multimedia platforms and social media. He regularly blogs about energy topics in movies.

Webber said he is also aware of the “Carl Sagan effect” — the idea that educators who popularize science can suffer in academic circles — even as he advocates that scientists should engage more in public policy debates.

But as Webber and his media team prepare for a fall 2014 season of “Energy at the Movies,” he said he can’t help but fantasize about including interviews from Hollywood stars George Clooney and Matt Damon, who made popular movies with energy-based plots.

Webber’s affinity for media can be traced to his experiences as a student.

He recalls a UT teacher, Mia Carter, teaching him as an undergraduate about the Holocaust with the aid of film. And at Stanford University, where Webber got a doctorate in engineering, Webber took “American History of 20th Century in Film” as he almost completed enough history courses for a master’s degree in that subject.

“If I’m ever a professor,” Webber told himself, “I’m going to teach a class with film because it’s such a powerful teaching tool.”

“Energy at the Movies” comes from an undergraduate honors course that Webber teaches at UT.

Its theme: Movies are historical documents in how people use and view an energy source.

Hollywood has tapped almost every energy source — whether coal, oil, nuclear or renewables — as a major or minor players in many movies, from “Coal Miner’s Daughter” to “Giant” to “O Brother Where Art Thou.”

That remains true today as films from the documentary “Gasland” — and its industry rebuttal “Truthland” — to the Damon co-written “Promised Land” focus on the “fracking” technology that has made natural gas the fossil energy du jour.

Occasionally, a movie goes beyond affecting perceptions and changes public policy.

For example, “China Syndrome” — a 1979 movie about a television crew discovering safety cover-ups at a nuclear power plant — came out 12 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania.

“Some people say this did for nuclear energy what “Jaws” did for sharks,” Webber said.

“Energy at the Movies,” which was sponsored by the Cockrell School of Engineering at UT, American Clean Skies Foundation and AMD, was filmed in front of a live audience at KLRU-TV, the local PBS station.

“We didn’t do any marketing,” Webber said. “It spread by word of mouth.”

For the sequels, Webber and his producer, Juan Garcia, are planning six to 10 half-hour episodes each season for the next three years.

Webber and his media team are identifying topics, raising money and storyboarding. They plan on being in the studio by spring and on the air in late 2014.

Likewise, Webber’s online course, Energy Technology & Policy, which is based on his graduate course, is attracting interest.

More than 29,000 have signed up for the free course that begins Sept. 15. That’s more than any UT online course this fall, but trails the most popular course offered by edX — MIT’s Circuits and Electronics, which enrolled 155,000.

Other than the United States, most of Webber’s online students will be watching from India, Pakistan, Japan and Eastern Europe, in that order. That requires Webber to re-think his lecture in global terms.

“I have to think how someone in Sumatra would think about this,” Webber said.

For example, the U.S. consumes 40 percent of its energy for the production of electricity, but not so in many Third World countries.

“It’s a more rigorous way to teach it,” he said. “It makes the course better.”

In May, Webber taped the 30 segments over three days.

Webber is trying to address one of the shortcomings of free online courses — a severe drop-off in viewership.

“In a class (on campus), I might teach with 100 students and maybe five drop out,” Webber said. “Here, it’s the other way around.”

Webber has added introductions, interactive exercises, and a quiz for each segment to improve the retention rate.

So far, UT and Webber are not making any money on the deal. But UT’s partnership with edX allows it to participate in a new online movement _ massive online open courses or MOOCs _ targeting a global audience.

Webber said the online experiment allows UT to address questions like: “Long range, what’s the business model going to be? How does UT make sure it doesn’t lose it shirt? How does the faculty get compensated?”

Comparing his PBS show to the online course, Webber said, “They are both multimedia expressions of the same kind of content, but in a way that students seems pretty responsive to.”

Webber also enlists Garcia and the media team to spread the word about the research efforts of his graduate students.

“A typical research paper might have a dozen people read it,” he said. “A research video might get 1,000 views” on YouTube.

Webber said many of his students are adept at making videos as well: “Sometimes it’s easier for them to make a video that write a paper.”

Granted that’s not kitten-like numbers on YouTube, Webber said, but it’s a start.

All of Webber’s media activities fit his call for scientists to be better communicators.

He cites major policy debates on health care, energy, environment and climate change as examples.

“The scientists have been eerily silent,” Webber said. “They don’t engage, and if they engage, they don’t speak the right language.”

To begin with, it’s hard.

“It’s a foreign language; it’s time consuming; and there’s no reward,” Webber said.

For example, professors applying for tenure must list how many students they graduate and how many papers they publish.

“Nowhere is there a spot to say how often did you testify before Congress or how many op-eds did you write,” Webber said. “In fact, op-eds might work against you.”

Webber said scientists should not take sides or advocate, “but we should inject a little fact in there whenever we can.”

He understands the downside of entering the public arena: “If you have engaged in a heated public debate that people have taken sides on, you might be the enemy for half of America all of sudden.”

In academic circles, colleagues can deride the media savvy.

Webber has to look no further than Carl Sagan, an astronomer, astrophysicist and author of hundreds of scientific articles and 20 books.

He also was the co-writer and host of a 1980 television show, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” that was the most popular PBS series of its time.

“Being on PBS and being a populizer of science did not help his scientific career,” Webber said. “People would say, ‘You must not be a real scientist because you are too popular.’ It’s so pronounced, it’s actually called the Carl Sagan effect.”

It doesn’t matter.

Webber, it seems, is about to get his 15 minutes of fame.



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