Thursday, April 7, 2016

Renewable Energy Education: The Best Energy Investment Yet

Renewable energy topics are trending in classrooms around the world, but especially in the U.S. given the current push to bring students real-world and hands-on training and experiences in rapidly expanding clean energy industries. As energy workforce needs are expected to blossom in coming years, how are schools encouraging and equipping students for the brave new world of energy?  By integrating STEM disciplines - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics - primary and secondary schools are providing their students the foundation needed to pursue careers in these growing and highly paid occupations, but many schools are also introducing project-based opportunities to pique and sustain student interest.

Often the best educational projects start with a real-world challenge and offer benefits that stretch beyond the classroom. This was exactly the case at North Fork Middle School in Quicksburg, VA earlier this year. When Superintendent Jeremy Raley issued the energy challenge, “What would it take to have a net-zero science lab at North Fork Middle School?,” sixth grade science teacher John Woods and his students stepped up to take on the task.

Once the initial research was done, the findings presented, and recommendations proposed for the design and construction of a classroom with zero reliance on the existing electric grid, the middle school team went to work putting their ideas into action. Solutions ranged from wind turbines to passive solar collectors to an energy efficiency plan—concepts all developed by the students themselves. With financial support from the Moore Educational Trust, the North Fork Middle School students have transitioned to real-life problem solving and are putting applications of alternative energy to work in their own school environment. 

Clean Energy Leaders of the Future
With middle and secondary schools laying a solid foundation, higher education takes the task of developing clean energy leaders of the future to another level by sponsoring challenges like Michigan State University’s 2015 Energy Innovation Awardand Student Solar Design Competition. Students from across the state of Michigan were invited to design cost-effective, energy-efficient and design-centric solar installations that could be integrated into a campus landscape. Top submissions combined art and science, and included a multi-colored solar street lamp, a solar gem biodome, a solar kiosk, and a window solar charger. The competition not only promoted interdisciplinary collaboration, but also connected students with industry experts, creating valuable experience and networking.  

Dr. Richard Lunt from MSU conducts a final judging round.
Photo credit: MSU Be Spartan Green Facebook page

The Untapped Potential of Solar Schools
In addition to the educational benefits of projects like those showcased here, school districts are increasingly recognizing the concrete and immediate value of their schools going solar as well. According to an article from the Clean Energy Collective, a nationwide study reports solar installations among U.S. schools have grown 110% year-over-year from 2008 to 2012, with thousands cutting their utility bills and using the savings to pay for teacher salaries and textbooks.

“Solar is enabling many Massachusetts schools to save money, enrich learning and keep teachers in the classroom – all while providing local jobs and generating emissions-free electricity,” said Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director of The Solar Foundation.

At Drury High School in North Adams, Massachusetts for example, the school’s solar installation offset almost 140,000 of CO2 emissions in the first two years alone and saved the school enough money from reduced electricity costs to maintain all of its teachers and academic programs. The Solar Foundation has determined that there are 72,000 schools in the country that could go solar in a cost-efficient manner and therefore similarly benefit.

Challenges and competitions in the examples of North Fork Middle School and Michigan State University show that supporting projects within the educational system may be the most important investment in clean energy we can ever make. By putting the problems of building and integrating real-world energy solutions directly in the hands of students of all ages, we are not only stimulating valuable learning and shaping the career choices of the students involved, we are also contributing to the advancement of renewable energy innovation and facilitating clean energy transitions in the educational institutions themselves. What better way to bring a sustainable energy future into being that with our youth?

No comments:

Post a Comment