How an Austin startup is helping a UT professor turn the tide on energy policy

by Colin Morris
April 28, 2016

Dr. Michael Webber has dedicated his career to playing two long games with profound implications in Central Texas: influencing public policy on issues of energy and the environment, and growing an American talent pool to solve them.

His energy research group at UT Austin focuses on issues at the intersection of engineering, science and public policy, including water conservation, alternative transportation fuels and food waste.

“Austin is a perfect mix of entrepreneurial spirit mixed in with IT expertise and a cultural sensitivity to water and energy issues,” Webber (pictured right) said in a recent interview. “As a consequence, it’s no surprise that leadership on energy- and water-related STEM education would come from here.”

But as an educator in the overlapping fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Webber knows as well as any recruiter here that there just isn’t enough talent to go around.

That’s why he recently teamed up with two tech companies to create and distribute an interactive app that teaches key STEM concepts about water and energy for K–12, colleges and the general public.

Click to enlarge.The app is called Resourcefulness (shown left), and was created with the sponsorship and consultation of Itron, a multinational corporation whose devices measure and analyze energy and water consumption.

“Itron sees the development of this curriculum as an opportunity to inspire the next generation of innovators and problem solvers to get involved in the energy and water industry,” said Sharelynn Moore, Itron’s vice president of global marketing and public affairs, “and to encourage everyday decisions and behaviors to improve resourcefulness.”

The other partner is

, a year-old startup in Austin whose software supplements textbooks for schools, corporate training and professional development courses.

While the app itself has been available since October, its content is mostly a preview of what’s to come when the curriculum is published in May. A preliminary chapter on the influence of energy and water on power and democracy contains text, videos and a basic comprehension exercise about a Nobel Prize winning professor who ranked energy and water at the top of humanity’s top ten problems.

Resourcefulness isn’t Webber’s first foray into authoring interactive textbooks. But his first entry, Energy 101, may cause app store sticker shock: It’s published by the UT Austin, and a single download will cost you $49.99.

By contrast, Webber’s partnership with the private sector made it possible to give Resourcefulness away for free thanks to Itron’s sponsorship.

“Apps let us reach a broader and bigger audience in a more cost-effective, engaging and affordable way than text books,” he said.

And he’s right — a $50 app is still cheaper than most college textbooks, easier to carry around and stays with you long after the semester.

Webber credited The Austin Technology Incubator and Pecan Street public-private partnerships with their own contributions to solving clean energy and water issues, but drew a line between technical solutions and raising awareness.

“Many efforts focus on creating technology geared for metering, sensing, or analyzing data from the utility sector,” he said. “This project with Itron is the only project to focus on the human element, preparing individuals to solve the problems of the future.”"

It’s too early to tell how much impact an issue-based education app is likely to have, or whom it will influence and what those people will do with the information. But purely from a design standpoint, it’s obvious the app is easy to use and scale.

“From our initial consultations, we knew we wanted to create a product with longevity and flexibility to evolve as the science and industry evolve,” said Coleman Tharpe, vice president of operations and instructional design at DISCO. “Because this project is modular and scalable, it can be incorporated as a resource for teachers in a full-length science course or smaller modules, which can be used as breakout exercises in other interdisciplinary courses and non-traditional educational environments, such as Girl Scouts, museums and after-school programs.”

Have a news tip for us or know of a company that deserves coverage? Tell us or tweet @BuiltInAustin.

Jobs at Disco Learning Media

Austin startup guides

Best Companies to Work for in Austin
Coolest Tech Offices in Austin
Best Perks at Austin Tech Companies
Women in Austin Tech