The Physics of Sustainability

Hans Pfister teaches a course on the physics of renewable energy.

Associate Professor of Physics Hans Pfister leads a discussion about theoretical physics. Pfister recently launched a series of renewable-energy workshops. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

Want to reduce your carbon footprint and save money on energy bills? You're in luck. Dickinson is hosting free public workshops that can help you bring the sustainability sciences out of the classroom and into your home.

Presented once a month from 9 a.m. to noon, the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Sustainability Workshop Series is sponsored by the department of physics & astronomy and is led by Associate Professor of Physics Hans Pfister. Each session begins with an overview of the basic physics principles related to that month’s topic, followed by a hands-on workshop, as participants learn to build and/or use their own energy-saving devices at home.

During January's workshop, they worked in small teams to design and build their own solar air heaters. The team that produced the most efficient prototype went home with a six-pack of compact fluorescent lamps.

“It was a lot of fun to actually run through the design and construction process from the start,” said major Zephram Wolf ’15, a member of the winning team.

The series is just one of the many ways that Dickinson weaves sustainability throughout the curriculum. This semester, for example, Pfister teaches a course titled The Physics of Global Climate Change and Renewable Energies, and he says that if students in that class implement what they learn, they will reduce their CO2 emissions and also save about $100 on future monthly utility bills.

"I wanted to bring that knowledge to a larger group of people, so we could become more sustainable as a community," Pfister says. A public workshop was born.

That mission resonates with Wolf, a physics major who decided to enroll at Dickinson after sitting in on one of Pfister’s workshop-physics classes. He plans to attend each Saturday-morning workshop offered this semester. “The opportunity to learn useful, easy ways to improve my impact on the planet is too good to pass up, even if it comes at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning,” Wolf said, adding: “It’s an early start to the day, but it’s totally worth it.”

Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Sustainability Workshops

Saturdays, 9 a.m. to noon, Tome Science Building

  • Jan. 25: The Solar Air Heater: Direct Conversion of Solar Energy into Thermal Energy
  • Feb. 22: Saving Hundreds With Energy-Efficient Lighting
  • March 29: Wind Turbine 101
  • April 26: The Q-Box: A Thermal-Storage Device to Reduce Heating and AC Costs

All events are free. Please call 717-245-1413 to register. For more information, please contact Hans Pfister at 717-245-1307 or

Published February 3, 2014