Student Engagements Help Educate and Boost Workforce Development
NREL is helping develop the workforce of the future by having students learn about building renewable energy technologies, as well as offering onsite internships.
When Hurricane Sandy crashed into the East Coast in October 2012, it caused an estimated $65 billion in damages. The disaster also inspired students from New Jersey's Stevens Institute of Technology (Stevens) to tackle the problem of climate change directly through their project for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Decathlon 2015.
Over two years, the 40-member team designed a structure that can withstand the effects of global warming along the Jersey Shore such as savage coastal storms. The team's vision paid off when Stevens took first place among 14 collegiate teams in the competition held in Irvine, California. During that period, more than 50 NREL staff members supported the event.
That's part of the laboratory's legacy. NREL has organized all seven Decathlons since the inaugural event in 2002. But it isn't just project management—NREL lets participants develop valuable skills, crafting the 10 events so teams stretch their talents.
"We make the energy efficiency and renewable energy design challenge into a game," said NREL's Sara Farrar, the event production manager, adding that NREL created "an interesting problem that college students are inspired to solve." As decathletes work together to solve real problems, they gain real-world experience.
Yet the story doesn't end there. The benefits of workforce development expand outward over time, something an estimated 20,000 decathletes can attest to. The skills—ranging from fund-raising and communication through construction experience—become building blocks for the next generation of clean energy innovators.
NREL Mentors and Competitions Boost Skills
NREL has an array of such educational and developmental engagements. Through DOE's Office of Science's Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program for undergraduates, NREL encourages rising scientists and engineers each year to excel in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
For example, NREL's James Young is part of "four generations" of mentorship at NREL. His own mentor, former SULI intern Todd Deutsch, is now an NREL senior scientist. It was during Young's second SULI stint in 2010 that he bonded with Deutsch. "It was a lot of fun, and really expanded my thinking," Young said. Deutsch remained Young's advisor as he worked to complete his Ph.D. in the Materials Science and Engineering Program at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
"Through the years, hundreds of SULIs have gained valuable research experience at the laboratory, and used that experience to enrich their careers. These investments clearly have had significant workforce development impacts" said Linda Lung, NREL's Workforce Development and Education Programs manager.
In honoring Lung in 2014 with the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Mentorship Award from the Federal Labs Consortium Mid-Continent Region, the awards committee noted that her program "touched an amazing number of individuals." At times, students engage in multiple programs. For example, two past SULI interns, Ben Brannon of Missouri University of Science and Technology and Ben Kurtz of California Institute of Technology, were also decathletes.
Keeping Pace with New Opportunities
As new educational opportunities have developed, the laboratory has expanded its role. In 2013, NREL issued a request for proposals seeking participants in DOE's inaugural National Collegiate Wind Competition—challenging teams to design and construct a wind-driven power system, develop a business plan to market their product, and demonstrate their knowledge of current and emerging issues facing the wind industry. The following year, NREL set the stage—literally—for the competition in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ten teams' small wind turbines went blade-to-blade in an NREL-constructed wind tunnel.
"The Collegiate Wind Competition inspires our nation's students to design, build, and test a real-world wind turbine prototype," said NREL's Suzanne Tegen, manager of NREL's Wind and Water Deployment Group.
The second wind competition, held in May 2016, included a key component to ensure team diversity of backgrounds and educational training for team members. "This event brings students and professors from business, engineering, marketing, and the sciences together with the U.S. wind industry and DOE," Tegen said. In addition to a chance to compete with other universities, students have the opportunity to meet with leaders in the wind industry. NREL also developed the wind energy career map that is now available on DOE's website, and the laboratory continues to partner with DOE to bring K-12, community college, and university students together around the topic of wind energy in the national program Wind for Schools.
With all of NREL's experience in workforce development, it is only natural that in April 2015, lab staff welcomed students and faculty from 33 college team in the United States, Canada, and China for DOE's Race to Zero Student Design Competition—repeating the event this year. The weekend gatherings give teams a chance to present their research and designs for the future of energy efficiency building. One competitor, Humboldt University's Julian Quick, used his Race to Zero experience to successfully apply as a 2015 summer SULI intern; he returns again in 2016. Planning is underway for next year's competition.
"What most impressed me about the Race to Zero is the students," said NREL's Stacey Rothgeb, event project manager and residential buildings manager. She praised "the general level of enthusiasm and engagement" in the students.
And as students move on from such experiences as Solar Decathlons, wind competitions, SULI internships, and other offerings, their paths have been illuminated by opportunities NREL supports. The laboratory has helped them strive to reach their goals in the clean energy workforce—and in turn, prepare them to help others on their journeys.