Intercollege Master of Professional Studies in Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems – Solar Energy Option

The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802

The Pennsylvania State University has been a leader in distance education for more than 100 years, and Penn State World Campus has been on the forefront of online higher education since 1998. Available to any accepted student, but geared towards students who need the flexibility of asynchronous course presentation due to career, personal, or geographic concerns, Penn State World Campus offers academically rigorous, accredited programs at the undergraduate and graduate level. The intercollege Master of Professional Studies in Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems, and its associated Solar Energy Option, is one of those programs, formed through a partnership between four colleges and eight academic departments from within Penn State.

Program Description

The Penn State University’s online intercollege Master of Professional Studies in Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems (iMPS-RESS) is a program geared towards professionals who are interested in a deeper understanding of the systems behind renewable energy and sustainability. The program offers four tracks – Sustainability Management and Policy, Bioenergy, Wind Energy, and Solar Energy – though students can move through the program without selecting a specific track. The Solar Energy option allows the student to select either a solar electric (photovoltaic) or solar thermal driven course of study, and a distributed or large-scale approach. The solar track can be completed with 32 credit hours, 12 of which are courses in solar topics exclusively, along with a three credit capstone experience. Careers that graduates might pursue include project managers, design engineers, business development, or research and analysis.

Program Attributes

  • Completely online professional master’s program, offered through the Penn State World Campus.
  • Offered through a partnership between four Penn State colleges and eight academic departments.
  • Gives the student access to a suite of classes geared towards professionals in the renewable energy field, including technical and science courses, project development, business and finance, and leadership.

Case Study Interview

1. What inspired you to spearhead the effort to integrate solar content into your courses, curriculum, or programs?

Jeffrey Brownson, PhD, Solar Option Lead: I have a strong interest in solar energy as environmental technologies with a positive impact on our surrounding ecosystems services, and to help society. There is also a 20 year gap in solar energy education and research in the USA (1985-2005), particularly surrounding systems design and the integrative design process that links finance and solar utility to systems engineering. The rebound from that gap in higher education institutions is occurring quite slowly despite the growth in the solar industry globally. As such I feel that solar education needs strong advocates in education to grow social awareness for the resource and the supporting conversion technologies.

David Riley, PhD: The inspiration was the opportunity to include solar into a new program that was being developed, one that was focused on the right aspects of renewable energy. It could’ve been developed to not include solar – geothermal, or wind alone, or biomass. It was the opportunity to make sure that solar was included in that, and it was included in a way that it was aligned with the ways we were learning were important. It was also very important to me that it included professional skills in addition to the theoretical knowledge. The other aspects that were important include the fact that the program had potential to serve a wide variety of audiences, as opposed to a single set of learning objectives.

2. What major obstacles did you encounter and how did you overcome them?

JB: The social awareness of solar energy in the USA was very low as of 2005, and riddled with misconceptions regarding the availability of the resource and the financial costs associated with installing systems like photovoltaics. I engaged with the Solar Decathlon of 2007-2009 as a faculty lead, and “grew” a new cohort of solar enthusiasts from the student body, who then began to influence the faculty and administrators in our institution. I also began to take students to the national annual meetings of the American Solar Energy Society, where they encountered professionals and industry leaders. The enthusiasm of the younger generation was contagious, and they eventually formed a student chapter of ASES and helped to create a new sub-conference of Young Professionals in Renewable Energy at the annual conference. Also, the solar design course that I teach is required for my degree program, and the Energy Engineering program encountered substantial growth in the last 6 years. My class sizes for solar design grew from 15 students per year to 70-80 students per year.

DR: There was a lack of institutional investment, and faculty capacity around in regards to solar energy. In particular, a lot of power system and power electronics and power system design expertise to complement an existing strength in material science and photovoltaic technology. We overcame these challenges by focusing intensely on identifying experts in the industry who had experience designing, building, and commissioning systems. We also designed a curriculum that recognized that equipment and technologies were quickly evolving. At the end of sections on technology, there are big sections in the courses about how the technologies are evolving, what is changing, what is coming, what’s new.

3. What were the keys to successfully achieving solar content integration (e.g., support of a person or persons; part of a planned curriculum improvement project; recommendations from industry or an advisory board; etc.)?

JB: My research and education focus is uniquely solar and sustainability at the core. To me, solar examples are ubiquitous in society, whether speaking of thermodynamics, economics, social good, or integrative design. I could not imagine a course without solar content integration. My department supports my efforts as a solar researcher and educator.

DR: In this case, it was the creation of multiple new courses and a degree. The key success factor was the resources that were acquired to support the individuals who developed and organized a curriculum, as well as went out and secured learning products like case studies and interviews. The resources to support the overall effort, it was too substantial of a list of things for one person to do in their spare time. The other key attribute was a revenue model being put in place that held the promise that those investments would give a return, and that there was sufficient demand to warrant the investment and the pursuit. Third, the academic leadership at the department, college, and university level were aligned with the opportunity and the process to generate the proposals and to put the actual program into place, from conception all of the way through approval by the faculty senate, which was a four year process.

4. How long did the process take from initial concept presentation or proposal to implementation?

JB: From my experience developing solar skill among the students and faculty (100-150 individuals) for the Solar Decathlon, I developed a network of partners across campus to help develop solar energy education and research goals. I developed connections through the previous Decathlon participants as well. I have been involved with 3-4 key faculty across campus who share a solar energy passion, to grow solar courses and even a solar degree program (the Solar Option in the online Master of Professional Studies in Renewable Energy & Sustainability Systems). I developed my first solar course in my first year at Penn State, and have taught it every year since arriving. Six years later, I incorporated the materials into a solar design textbook, and also teach an online graduate course in solar resource assessment and economics.

5. Was this primarily a one-person effort, or did you have one or more partners who shared a significant portion of the workload?

DR: The process took four years. Obviously this was a team effort. There was a programmatic leader, Dr. Jeff Brownson, who oversaw the combined creation of new courses and developed the solar PV and solar thermal tracks, and who aligned the courses with the overall degree program. Then there was kind of a design leadership at the course level to conceive the specific learning objectives and content, in alignment with industry needs. In addition to that, there was significant investment of individuals to author and organize content and be able to deliver the classes at scale, which ended up being about three to four full time employee equivalents.

6. What products or services from your Regional Training Provider (RTP) and the Solar Instructor Training Network (SITN) were most useful to you in achieving solar content integration at your institution?

DR: Penn State’s Northern Mid-Atlantic Solar Education and Resource Center was a Regional Training Provider for the Solar Instructor Training Network. The emphasis placed on curriculum design and the relationship between curriculum and credentials as part of our RTP work, making those distinctions, and increasingly being a core member of the broader solar community were all incredibly useful. Plus, this was an opportunity to see how this investment could be distinctive and make a new contribution instead of a duplication of efforts.

7. Are there other products or services that you would suggest for the RTPs and/or the SITN to offer that would be helpful in the process of implementing solar content integration?

DR: To clearly articulate what materials are available for adoption by institutions from different sources. These examples of solar curriculum interaction will be very powerful. What this website is doing is one of the most needed things.


8. Would you be willing to share course proposals, curriculum improvement proposals, and/or curriculum outlines for the courses, curriculum, and programs that you used as part of the solar content integration process?

JB: Absolutely. I wish to see solar education spread virally across higher education, and I am committed to help facilitate that process.

DR: Yes, across the board.

9. If yes, would you agree to have these materials available on the IREC web site (with links from the RTP web sites)?

JB: Yes.

DR: Yes.

10. Would you be willing to be listed as a contact person on the IREC web site to share your solar content integration experience with other interested parties?

JB: Yes.

DR: Yes.

11. Would you be willing and able to specify all occupations for which the training that you offer applies (e.g., this program trains students for these occupations/jobs)?

JB: I would need assistance with the specification of “all” jobs, but yes I would be willing to do this.

DR: Yes.

12. Was specific funding appropriated for solar content integration into related course, curriculum, and/or program development?

JB: No. It was a part of the core curriculum in the Energy Engineering degree, and is in high demand among engineering, science, and energy economics students.

DR: Yes, through the Solar Instructor Training Network.

13. If special funding was available, would you be willing to share the amount of funding on the IREC web site?


DR: Yes.

Course Listings

The degree for the iMPS solar energy option will be conferred upon students who complete a minimum of 32 credits while maintaining a grade-point average of 3.0 or better in all course work, including at least 18 credits at, or above, the 500 level (with at least 6 credits at the 500 level), and who complete a quality culminating capstone project in consultation with a graduate adviser.

Please note that courses used to satisfy option credits cannot be used to fulfill the required elective credits. However, option elective courses not used to fulfill option requirements may be used as degree program elective credits.

Prescribed Courses (11 credits)
BIOET 533 Ethical Dimensions of Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems 2 credits
Examination of ethical issues relevant to research procedure, professional conduct, social and environmental impacts, and embedded values in research.
EME 504 Foundations in Sustainability Systems 3 credits
Theoretical background of sustainability issues and studies of sustainability systems.
EME 801 Energy Markets, Policy, and Regulation 3 credits
Structure and function of energy markets; existing and emerging environmental regulations; decision-making by energy companies.
EME 802 Renewable and Sustainable Energy Systems 3 credits
An overview of renewable energy technologies and energy system analysis.
Solar Energy Option Required Courses (6 credits)
A E 878 Solar Project Development and Finance 3 credits
Economic analysis of solar energy projects, project development process, energy policies, finance methods, and economic analysis tools.
EME 810 Solar Resource Assessment and Economics 3 credits
Methods, economic criteria, and meteorological background for assessing the solar resource with respect to solar energy conversion technologies.
Solar Energy Option Electives (6 credits)
A E 862 Distributed Energy Planning and Management 3 credits
Theories and practices of distributed energy production and management in context of regional and integrated energy grid structures.
A E 868 Commercial Solar Electric Systems 3 credits
Theories and practices of solar electric systems including component selection, performance simulation, grid interconnection, codes, and design documentation.
EME 811 Solar Thermal Energy for Utilities and Industry 3 credits
Applications of solar thermal energy (STE) including district heating/cooling (buildings), industrial process heating, fuel synthesis, desalination, and materials processing.
Prerequisite: EME 810
EME 812 Utility Solar Electric and Concentration 3 credits
Technical and theoretical background for utility scale solar energy conversion technologies to generate electric power.
Prerequisite: EME 810
Electives (6 credits)
A B E 884 Biomass Energy Systems 3 credits
Theories and applied technologies for production and conversion of biomass into energy and co-products.
EME 803 Applied Energy Policy 3 credits
Provides in-depth exploration of energy policy development, implementation, and assessment of multiple governmental and corporate scales with emphasis on energy markets.
MANGT 510 Project Management 3 credits
A problem-based, interdisciplinary course in project management skills and techniques needed to manage projects in a modern business environment.
SCM 800 Supply Chain Management 4 credits
Introduction to the strategic framework, issues, and methods for integrating supply and demand management within and across companies.
SYSEN 505 Technical Project Management 3 credits
Analysis and construction of project plans for the development of complex engineering products taken from a variety of problem domains.
SYSEN 507 Systems Thinking 3 credits
The theory and practice of systems thinking. General systems theory; system dynamics, emergent properties, structure, feedback and leverage.
SYSEN 520 Systems Engineering 3 credits
Fundamentals of Systems Engineering with focus on System methodology, design, and management; includes life cycle analysis, human factors, maintainability, serviceability/reliability.
SYSEN 533 Deterministic Models and Simulation 3 credits
Provides a background in simulation and the modeling of problems that contain differential equations as part of the system.
Capstone Experience (3 credits)
A B E 589 Management and Design of Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems 3 credits
Real-world renewable energy systems projects using a systems analysis and case-study approach.
Total required:Including 18 credits at or above the 500 level 32 credits




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