The research process

Geography prof turns energy research into a teaching moment with students

When Conor Harrison went to Colgate University as a soccer player, he had no thoughts about becoming a professor — or anything else for that matter. So he majored in political science and worked for a company that sold soccer equipment after he graduated. 

“I didn’t love what I was doing,” Harrison says. “I got to travel a lot, but I got the feeling it wasn’t for me.” 

So he spent a year trying to figure out his next step. “I thought, ‘What do I like to read about? What in the newspaper do I find interesting?’” Those queries led him to urban planning and graduate school. But in graduate school, his geography courses led him down a different path that included research and teaching. 

“I think I had always been interested in issues of economic inequality — especially the way that intersects with environmental issues,” the North Carolina native says. “I spent my graduate school life looking at issues of energy and energy inequality. Now my teaching revolves around these topics: energy, inequality, economics and how they interact with the environment.” 

Harrison teaches a variety of classes with a dual appointment in geography and environmental science. But he says he always focuses on making sure his students — be they geography or environmental science majors or other majors fulfilling science requirements — learn how to “read and write and think about problems.” 

“There are a couple of things I try to do in all my courses,” he says. “I try to have a lot of small assignments along the way that keep the students engaged.” 

One of those assignments is to complete a form summarizing what a given chapter or article is about, what they found interesting and what they didn’t understand. He reviews their responses before class. 

I’ll take that info and tweak what I am going to do in class that day,” he says. “It helps me get a much better understanding of how to tailor discussions and whether there is a point that I need to spend more time on. I think that makes class time a little more relevant.” 

Harrison also includes students in his research, which looks at the causes of energy poverty — particularly in the Southeastern U.S. 

“I look at how utility service spreads through a city,” Harrison says. “They would build a line here and a line here, but they wouldn’t build a line there and race was clearly a very big part of that.” 

Harrison’s primary goal is simply to introduce students to the research process — and following the advice his librarian mother gave him when he went to college, let them meet the information experts who are there to help them. 

“I am trying to expose them to these amazing resources at the university — databases with incredible information,” he says. “It’s all part of getting students away from just using textbooks and getting their hands on some primary materials. It’s easy to forget how hard all that was in the beginning — especially when we do it every day as professors.” 

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