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Establishing a Community College Wind Energy and Turbine Technology Program: Wind Powering America Lessons Learned

October 31, 2011

In 2004, Iowa Lakes Community College became the first school in the nation to offer a Wind Energy and Turbine Technology Associate of Applied Science degree while utilizing a turbine as a working laboratory. Iowa Lakes is also one of the first three colleges to earn the American Wind Energy Association Seal of Approval for wind turbine technician training programs. Wind Powering America interviewed Daniel Lutat, director of the Wind Energy & Turbine Technology program at Iowa Lakes, and his team about lessons learned while developing their innovative program.

Describe the process of establishing the Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program at Iowa Lakes Community College.

In the years preceding our first class, Iowa Lakes Community College made the decision to purchase a turbine as an energy savings initiative. During that process, we "seeded the clouds" with the idea of developing training for technicians, and our location certainly supported that notion. In 2003, college and industry experts outlined our curriculum and worked with the Iowa Department of Education to approve both the Associate of Applied Science (AAS) and diploma (48-credit option) programs. Our first instructor had worked in the industry for some time and was instrumental in not only defining the competencies an entry-level wind turbine technician would need but also securing resources that provided hands-on training to reinforce theory. In 2004, our first class began: the first in the nation to offer a Wind Energy and Turbine Technology AAS utilizing a turbine as a working laboratory. Our 1.65-megawatt Vestas turbine was commissioned during the spring semester in 2005 and has since been one of our most valuable training resources. As we grew to our present level of six full-time instructors, we added new materials and training aids to provide hands-on instruction in the fundamentals that our industry advisors felt were important.

What lessons did the school staff learn while establishing the program that you think may be important for other community college faculty working to establish their own programs?

Strategic planning is vital to getting a program successfully off the ground. The college leadership's first step was establishing an advisory committee, which included employees and industry leaders with excellent planning skills. College staff took the time to investigate funding opportunities and identified key stakeholders (potential employers of program graduates). Beginning with the end in mind, our team answered the questions of where our program graduates would work and what skills they would need to be successful in a rapidly evolving industry. Having the right people on the program design team was vital. By engaging the development staff early in the planning process, the financial burden was eased as we received key federal and state grants.

What is the goal of the program, and what steps have been taken to reach this goal? How has the program changed from its inception, and has the program's goal changed along with it?

Our overall focus where wind energy is concerned is to give our graduates the fundamental skills that companies can in turn polish through their own formal training, no matter what industry sector a graduate chooses. While our focus is on the operations and maintenance technician, our graduates leave us with a broad knowledge of various aspects of the industry. A commitment to quality remained at the forefront of program development. Mutually beneficial relationships between the college and all aspects of the industry drove the process as we designed a comprehensive curriculum. Our advisory committee was extremely robust, providing input on laboratories and graduate attributes that instructors translated into training materials.

Another key step in our journey was collaborating with the American Wind Energy Association's (AWEA's) education working group and industry experts in developing the AWEA Seal of Approval for Wind Turbine Technician training programs. As a pilot program for its development, we identified key competencies and hands-on training to produce the quality of entry-level technician the industry desired. We refined our approach locally to closely mirror what industry and education professionals believed was essential. It wasn't simply about training on theory with simulations; it was about putting a sense of realism into the course, so that graduates got their hands on the real components they would work with. As one of the first three colleges nationwide to earn the AWEA Seal of Approval, we now have between 150 and 200 students, and our training aids provide a sense of realism that students find most valuable. Our state, civic, and industry partners and college leadership have committed to leading in this effort, and our aggregate investment tops $7 million dollars to date. It's something you have to be committed to if you're going to succeed, which has led us to a crossroad of sorts in our evolution.

We are now in the process of identifying core competencies that transcend sustainable energy fields so that we can take a more global look at what we include in our curriculum. We are teaming with our bio-renewable technology, environmental, and sustainable resources programs to bring several disciplines together under one roof. As we connect intuitive "dots" in renewable energy training, our goal remains to put our students' hands on the real thing in lab environments that mirror industry as closely as possible.

What lessons have you learned during this process?

Patience is vital. Building a sound program takes time, vision, and creativity. Seeking partnerships is essential, and advancing curriculum in areas that will be mainstays is important. Relationship-building also takes time and is one of the most important aspects of course development. Assistance for student scholarships and program support through cash and non-cash donations are critical to ensuring that our students are well-rounded and capable of utilizing current technology. Internships and job shadow experience processes, which were pretty easy to secure in the beginning, rapidly evolved into a challenge as the field of prospective employees grew. Providing access for companies to interact with potential employees has opened the door to networking opportunities for our industry partners, students, and graduates.

Iowa Lakes Community College's Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program offers a diploma or an AAS degree for students. Explain the difference between the two in terms of what will be learned and what opportunities await students who complete the diploma program versus students who earn their AAS degrees.

The main difference is duration and level of training. The diploma option fits students who already have a technical background and are suited to receiving the wind energy indoctrination before they head back to industry. Both options have an internship requirement of 384 hours, so the challenge of competing for jobs is real and rewarding. In the second year, the student in the AAS program receives more advanced training in electronics, programmable logic, networking, siting, power generation, and distribution. For those who are successful in obtaining an internship during their summer semester, the payoff is that they return with a renewed focus and sense of how their experience here relates to energy integration in the field. Ultimately, we advise students based on their background and goals; so for some, the diploma option is best, and for others, the AAS is best. We promote the AAS heavily because our industry and trade association partners have said they value it tremendously in entry-level professionals. As the first step in their professional development, earning the AAS degree increases the likelihood that students will complete a higher-level degree and shows a commitment that the industry regards highly. It's all about opening doors.

Does the college offer job placement for graduating students?

We have an excellent relationship with industry partners. Through engagement with industry, we bring students in contact with companies at industry panels and job fairs each year, and we have an excellent network established to publicize job openings for which students can apply. Coupled with introductory management coursework, our business and success center helps develop students' abilities to build strong resumes and interview techniques. We also conduct industry panels to give students feedback on what employers are looking for. The sustainable energy field is a competitive market, and our students must learn how to effectively promote their skills.

What lessons have you learned in this area?

The challenge of securing an internship is the student's first glimpse at what employers are looking for. While competitive and challenging for students, employers have the opportunity to observe and develop performance as they build their highly selective workforce. This mutually beneficial relationship is a key component to fielding the best entry-level technicians and identifying competencies that must keep pace with industry demands. We've consistently worked with companies across the renewable energy spectrum to offer a wide array of internships, helping students gain valuable industry exposure.

Wind turbine technology is varied and quickly evolving. How does the program keep up?

Our regular interaction with industry and AWEA keeps our instructors on top of what's going on in the field, and our students are engaged in researching and discussing the latest technologies. The bottom line with our courses is that we teach the core fundamentals that transcend equipment design. Our students explore how different designs and new technologies impact reliability and maintainability of wind generators. By the time they graduate, they are ready for employers to polish their skills on specific equipment. It would be easy to get lost in the "flavor of the week" mentality, so we stick to producing an adaptable technician armed with sound fundamentals that are timeless and universal.

Can you share any lessons in this area?

Changes in the industry demand that college faculty and leadership assertively explore additional programming that we may need to develop and integrate into existing curriculum. These days, it's not enough to treat energy sources individually as a panacea for certain energy concerns. America's energy future lies in an integrated, survivable power "system" that learns from performance data and predicts adaptively, rather than responding reactively. We believe that continuous improvement is the only way to ensure our graduates meet the demands of a dynamic industry.

—Julie Jones