Sophomore College (SoCo)

Stanford's Sophomore College provides rising second-year students with an opportunity for intensive, research-based study with senior faculty in a range of subjects and disciplines. The Center regularly sponsors Sophomore College courses on the North American West.

September 2015

Energy in the Southwest


Soco Energy 2015

We will examine the technical, social, and political issues surrounding energy management and use in the West, using California, Nevada, and Arizona as our field laboratory. Students will explore a number of energy narratives, such as:


  • Who supplies our energy and from what sources?
  • How is it transported?
  • Who distributes to users and how do they do it?
  • Water for energy and energy for water—two intertwined natural resources
  • Meeting carbon emission goals by 2020 and
  • Conflicts between desert ecosystems and renewable energy development.


We will place particular emphasis on renewable energy sources and the water-energy nexus, a critically important issue for the arid and semi-arid southwest.

Central to the course will be field exploration in northern and southern California, as well as neighboring areas in Arizona and Nevada, to tour sites such as wind and solar facilities, geothermal plants, hydropower pumped storage, desalination plants, water pumping stations, a liquid fuels distribution operations center, and California’s Independent System Operator. Students will have the opportunity to meet with community members and with national, state, and regional authorities to discuss Western energy challenges and viable solutions. We will also take advantage of Stanford’s own energy systems with site visits to the new energy facilities.

Led by Professors Sally Benson (energy resources engineering), Bruce Cain (political science), and David Freyberg (civil and environmental engineering)


Past Sophomore Colleges:

Here's a sampling of past courses the Bill Lane Center for the American West has offered:

September 2014

What happens when we turn on the light switches in our home? Where does that energy come from, and how does it remain available 24/7? As the second- and 10th-largest energy producer in the United States and in the world, respectively, Wyoming provided a unique backdrop for the Bill Lane Center's place-based learning experience. Professors Sally Benson (energy resources engineering), Bruce Cain (political science), and David Freyberg (civil and environmental engineering) led the course. Twelve rising sophomores from a diverse set of majors traveled to all four corners of Wyoming to learn about energy production while wrestling with the political and economic issues it generated.

September 2013

The vast landscape of Alaska is endowed with more functioning ecosystems and designated wilderness land than any other state. In the age of the anthropocene, resource extraction threatens this “last frontier” of the American West. Led by Robert Dunbar, W.M. Keck Professor of Earth Science, twelve sophomores traveled to southeast Alaska to explore the challenges of balancing the local cash-subsistence economy with long-term sustainability.

September 2012

Salmon River. Sun Valley. Pioneer Mountains. The names speak of powerful forces and ideas in the American West. Central and Southern Idaho - a landscape embracing snow-capped mountains, raging rivers, sagebrush deserts, farms, ranches, and resort communities - is our classroom for this field-based seminar led by David Freyberg, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and David M. Kennedy, professor emeritus of History and Faculty Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. 

September 2011

During September 2011, Professors David M. Kennedy, Barton “Buzz” Thompson, Nicole Ardoin, and David Freyberg led an expeditionary-style seminar in the Grand Canyon. Students and faculty spent two weeks rafting 225 miles downstream while studying the law, economics, politics, ecology, hydrology, history, literature, and art of the Colorado River.

Read more in the January-February 2012 issue of Stanford Magazine and in student research reports from the class. (Photo: KRO-Media via Flickr)

2007: The Federal Government and the West

Taught by: David M. Kennedy, David BradyTammy Frisby, and Roger Noll
This course addressed the historical development and current status of the relationship between the U.S. federal government and the American West. It focused on the ways in which the federal government's enormous landholdings in the West and the dependence of major sectors of the western economy on federal funds and institutions have created a peculiar relationship between the federal government and western states. We began by examining the history of federal involvement with the West, from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Civil War-Era Pacific Railroad Act down to the enormous reclamation projects of the New Deal and post-World War II periods and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. We then used this historical background to help us understand the contemporary relationship in a number of policy areas: land ownership and natural resource management, agriculture, water, energy, and environmental quality. The course considered not only the influence of the federal government on the West but also how the politics and economies of western states have shaped federal policies that affect the nation. The seminar met on the Stanford campus and then moved to Washington, D.C. for discussion with elected officials and other policy makers. Students formed research teams, and each team's final work product was a formal presentation analyzing a key issue in the relationship between the federal government and the West.  

2006: What's the Matter with California?

Taught by: David M. Kennedy, David Brady, Roger Noll
This course addressed the historical origins, evolution, and current status of California's political system. It focused especially on the question of why the same political institutions that gave rise to a state widely regarded as exceptionally well governed up through the 1970s now support a governance structure that is so conspicuously dysfunctional. Chronic budget volatility, legislative paralysis, growing reliance on the initiative process to make law, deteriorating educational, transportation, and energy infrastructures, demographic and economic transformations unaccompanied by commensurate political adaptations, and the repeated failure of efforts to effect political change all suggest that California's political structure is in crisis. We examined the legacy of direct-democracy devices like the initiative, referendum, and recall; the nature of the executive and legislative branches of state government; changing characteristics of the electorate; the role of political parties; and the politics of redistricting, education, transportation, energy, and the environment. The seminar met on the Stanford campus and then moved to Sacramento for discussion with policy-makers and elected officials. Students produced final reports of 8-12 pages analyzing one of the key issues.

2005: Spinning the West

Taught by: Richard White
This course explored imagery and mythmaking associated with the American West taking place in Washington DC, exploring national museums, federal agencies, and policymaking bodies.