American Solar Network Teaching Note


Michael E. Gorman, TCC, SEAS
Draft: 8/30/95

  • Introduction and Goal
  • Version A
  • Version B
  • Version C (Under Construction)
  • Turning Cases into Active Learning Modules
  • Hands-On Activities to Accompany the Module
  • Support Materials on the World Wide Web

  • The goal of the ASN case is to encourage students to explore the consequences of an inventor's decision to put ethics first. A.C. Rich's design and company are clearly motivated by a desire to reduce our dependence on coal, nuclear and other power plant technologies that produce more pollution than his solar water heater. Like many inventors, Rich also expects this new technology will make him a millionaire. This case, then, raisies the possibility of doing well by doing good.

    Currently, there are A and B versions of this case, and a possible C case is under consideration.

    Version A

    A. This version asks the students to evaluate Rich's design according to principles spelled out by William McDonough, Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia and one of the world's foremost environmental designers. This should be easy for students who have been exposed to the Design Tex case, which goes through environmental design principles articulated by McDonough and his colleague Michael Braungart. For those students who begin with this case, it would be a good idea to assign a brief reading by McDonough or explain his design principles. Basically, he makes environmental concerns as important as standard design criteria like cost, performance and aesthetics. Note that he does not want to sacrifice these criteria to come up with some kind of envirnomentally friendly 'kludge'. Ethical design should be beautiful, efficient and inexpensive. McDonough favors a de-ontological or Kantian view of ethics--there are absolute principles which cannot be violated. These principles are captured in the catch phrases "waste equals food", "work from current solar income" and "cradle-to-cradle, not cradle to grave." If a design fails on any of these criteria--if it would produce any hazardous emissions, or end up in a land-fill after its useful life--then McDonough says it should be out of the question. A few minutes of though should suggest to students that the two main problems with Rich's design are cost and life-cycle. Rich is well aware that his design is too expensive and is working on ways to reduce the cost. Students could brainstorm alternatives. Rich also believes that his design will last for 20 or even 30 years. This is less clear. In particular, the pump and the drainback tank have far shorter life-expectancies. Furthermore, he needs a plan for what will happen to his design after 20 years. Will it be a pseudo-skylight and a mass of tubes, or can its effective life be extended? If so, how?

    The second question at the end of the A case raises the cost issue again--this time, in terms of subsidies. Students are asked to figure out where Rich should move. It is not critical in this case that they find the 'right answer'--it is more important that they see the nature and variety of subsidies that attempt to encourage environmental design, from the standpoint of an entrepreneur who is trying to make a better world.

    Version B

    B. This part of the case tells the students that Rich has moved to Sacramento to work with what appeared to be a progressive municipal district that wanted to encourage the use of environmentally-friendly technology. Unfortunately, he found out that rhetoric and practice do not always match. SMUD introduced repeated delays and finally accused Rich of unethical behavior. At the current time, he faces bankruptcy. Students are asked whether SMUD should provide him an additional loan to survive. This apparenly straightforward business question masks a deeper one--does Rich's design deserve to survive? Should taxpayer or other subsidies be used to keep environmentally friendly technologies afloat? If so, how does one determine the winners and losers? Students can also compare Rich's ethics with SMUD's. Was SMUD justified in imposing severe penalities because of a mistake? How can they distinguish mistakes from fraudulent practices? Rich's bottom-line is they should have talked to him before imposing penalties. On the other hand, Rich is no saint--to get his first group of investors, he hinted that a mutual fund was about to buy shares in ASN. No such purchase ever occurred. Ethical behavior occurs best in a climate of trust and open communication. Is it possible to maintain this kind of trust and openness in a competitive situation, where an honest salesperson may lose out to one who is only half-truthful?

    Version C

    C. This particular part of the case is still under construction. Rich, in his latest business plan, talks about going international--he seems to have only the vaguest idea what that would really mean. One of the issues raised by international investment is the way in which what is best environmentally may not be best in terms of other ethical perspectives, e.g., human rights. We intend to raise the possibiility of Rich's marketing his systems in Tibet, a prime location for solar if one is willing to deal with a foreign dictatorship that has turned Tibet into a kind of colony, where the rights of the natives account for little. There are design aspects to this case--can Rich's technology be adapted to a rural situation where there are no hot water heaters? But the most important issue has to do with whether a technology like his can be introduced in a way that makes the local inhabitants more independent of central sources of power. Indeed, most of the environmental technology in Tibet is being used to supply power centrally, e.g., solar collectors in a central location. Here design and ethics connect--if one could eliminate the hot water heater, then one could provide hot water solely at the site of the home, in a way that would make villagers independent.

    Turning Cases into Active Learning Modules

    While the ASN case is written so students could read the A case as homework in one class and come ready to discuss it in the next, then read the B for the next class, it is also possible to turn these cases into what we have called active learning modules Gorman, 1995 #376. These modules involve the students in doing original research and/or hands-on design activities.

    If the students have already been exposed to the Design Tex case, one can have them do a more thorough, Braungart-style analysis of the technology. This would involve going carefully through Rich's patent and doing research on the types of materials.

    You can also have the students do research on other technologies. Is Rich's design superior, in terms of McDonough's criteria, to alternatives that would accomplish the same goal? In your research, you should compare his system with at least one alternative. Other group members will be comparing it with others. The list of alternatives might include:

    If you conclude that Rich's system cannot compete with alternatives nationally, could it compete in specific states that offer tax incentives or districts where utilities subsidize purchases? You might focus on a single state to illustrate the possibilities (see Exhibit II).

    Students could be divided into small group teams of three each to explore particular technological alternatives and present them to the class. Then the class could be asked to debate whether Rich's technology is superior in environmental and economic terms. If it is environmentally superior, but not economic, should it be subsidized? One could also wait until after the B case to pose this problem.

    The C case opens almost unlimited possibilities for research and re-design. One can have the students do more research on Tibet or study other international markets. One can ask them to work in teams to adapt Rich's solar heater to a remote rural setting where water is heated with biomass and there is no standard hot water tank.

    Hands-On Activities to Accompany the Module

    One can have students to a variety of simple experiments to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of passive solar technology. For example, one can have students assess how long it takes the sun to heat a pan or bag of water to 150 degrees, which is the typical temperature of hot water in many homes. If students keep track of the volume of water in the pan, they can extrapolate to consider how long it would take to heat the amount of water used in a typical bath, or shower, or load of laundry. Part of the project can involve estimating these numbers. Students can also experiment with using different types of background material. Will a mirror work better than a dark surface? They can try using different materials to cover the pan. Many passive solar heaters use glass, but Rich uses plastic. One can also have the students assess the loss of heat involved in the transfer from water warmed by the sun to water used for the home in dual fluid systems like Rich's. Designing an experiment to do this can be quite creative. Should one attempt to use tubing, as in Rich's system, allowing the heated water to flow from the pan around another vessel of cooler water? Or should one simply immerse a container of cooler water in the heated water? The cooler water should be at the same temperature as water entering the home from pipes or wells. We recommend giving students the freedom to design their own experiments, with simple equipment, rather than simply handing them a canned laboratory exercise. The point of an active learning module is to encourage students to explore and be creative--but base their creative ideas on solid research and experiment. However, for those instructors that prefer to take students through a pre-designed experiment, we recommend Powertech"s Solar Power kit, which has a solar heater experiment in it: this kit can be obtained from Educational Design, Inc., 47 West 13 Street, New York, N.Y. 10011. The manual accompanying this kit contains a really good discussion of solar heaters and how they work.

    Support Materials on the World Wide Web

    We are preparing an extensive set of support materials for this and other cases on the World Wide Web, including links to information that would be especially useful on the active learning modules, and examples of other modules. Please look at the Invention and Design Home Page.