NREL Education Programs Science Coordinator Rick Shin attaches a balsa-wood wind turbine to a gear system at Denver West High School. NREL’s Education Programs staff visit schools dozens of times each year to instruct and inspire. (Photo by Pat Corkery, NREL)
The wind turbine that Louis Solis and Jose Santistevan fashioned in about 20 minutes promptly registered a 5.1 on the voltage meter in their Denver West High School classroom, tops in the class.
But Solis and Santistevan, both 17-year-old juniors, were determined they could do better. So, they bent and trimmed the balsa wood, flattened the angles on the blades, and tried again. They flipped on the house fan and, what do you know, the meter read 5.3 volts.
Definitely worth some high-fives.
“This appeals to me,” Santistevan said. “To try to find new technology to make renewable energy more accessible and more affordable, that’s important. Enjoying your job, having a good time while you’re working, that’s also important to me.”
Rick Shin, science consultant with NREL’s Education Programs, presented the hands-on lesson aimed at sparking interest in clean-energy careers for students who don't necessarily see a bachelor’s degree in their futures.
The Energy Workforce Program of Goodwill Industries of Denver sponsored the visit.
“We are well aware of the future challenge of filling such jobs in our nation,” said Cynthia Howell, NREL’s Education Programs manager. “We're partnering with education to home-grow such technicians and engineers.”
A major goal at NREL is to spark the development of a workforce for the renewable energy economy of the future. NREL’s Education Programs staff visit local schools dozens of times each year to instruct and inspire.
About 28% of American adults have a bachelor’s degree. The remaining 72% vie for a number of jobs that may require specialized training or certification. For example, there are 874,000 electricians and 773,000 hair stylists in the United States.
According to the U.S. Census, the average American with a bachelor’s degree earns about $51,000 a year; those who drop out from high school earn $18,700; and those with a high school diploma but not college degrees earn an average of $28,000.
Of course, there are huge variables in income among those with high school diplomas, the higher-paying jobs going to those with the most marketable technical skills.
Soon the renewable energy industry will be looking for electricians, welders, pipefitters and turbine installers.
“There are all kinds of good jobs that don't take a lot of education after high school,” Shin told the students. “For those jobs, you need about nine months or a year of training after high school.”
Most of the students participating in West’s Energy Careers class already are determined to pursue a technical career.
Milynda Montez, 17, sees a huge dichotomy between the dropouts who are on the road to trouble or to dead ends, and her Aviation Careers classmates, who are acquiring skills for a technological world. Montez said she plans to enlist in the Air Force — one of nearly a dozen students who are interested in engineering and aviation.
But she sees renewable energy as a promising career choice, too. “It’s pretty important and vital to our nation,” Montez said. “I know it’s a growing problem.”
A key part of the new energy future equation is educating students, teachers and consumers. From elementary school mentoring to senior-level research programs, NREL’s education opportunities help provide the link to the new energy future. The goal is to engage young minds in renewable energy and support teachers’ commitment to excellence in teaching and learning.
An economic model developed last year by researchers at Yale University and the University of California-Berkeley predicted a net increase of 1.9 million green jobs by 2020 in the U.S. if Congress passes the Clean Energy Jobs Act.
Colorado is a promising location for green jobs if the West High students choose to stay near home. The state has established a requirement of 20% alternative energy by 2020 for major utilities. A bill introduced in the current session of the Colorado Legislature would increase the requirement to 30%, with most of that additional clean energy generated by wind power.
“We hope our messages will travel home with the students to their parents,” Shin said. The hands-on activities aim to “inspire students to wonder and then seek more knowledge.”
Training in one renewable-energy field often leads to related work.
For example, NREL is working with Xcel Energy to launch a wind-to-hydrogen demonstration project at the laboratory’s National Wind Technology Center near Boulder. The project links wind turbines to electrolyzers that pass wind-generated electricity through water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen then can be stored and used later to generate electricity from a fuel cell or an internal combustion engine.
Shin talked to the students about the shape of airplane wings and wind turbines, both of which are airfoils, and about the increased importance of wind energy in the future.
He showed them a fuel cell that contains platinum, a catalyst that makes it easier to use wind energy to break down water into oxygen and hydrogen. They learned that by starting with wind and using water to produce hydrogen, a utility doesn’t have to store electricity in batteries. Instead, hydrogen can be stored in tanks, to be used later to make electricity when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.
The students’ silence during the lecture part of the class had Shin wondering if he had connected with them.
But as soon as they were allowed to use their hands and their brains to model the kinds of wind turbines being tested at NREL, the classroom came alive.
Students used glue guns, balsa wood, dowels and plastic gears to design wind turbines.
“When we do hands-on, everyone feels more comfortable, working with each other, building something,” said Solis. “This is creative. You have to have a creative mind.”
John Foden, 17, foresees his interest in mechanics and welding with a job in clean energy. “It’s probably a good career,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen a few years down the road with the Earth.”
Gerardo Espinoza, a senior, changed the blades on his model to make it more aerodynamic. “I’d like to go into mechanics and engineering,” he said. “All this, it’s like a difficult puzzle to solve. And I like puzzles.”
Amber Smith, who teaches the Energy Careers class as part of Career and Technical Training Education at West High, said the NREL program is effective because it exposes the students to real opportunities within their reach and it rewards experimentation.
“The hands-on part that NREL provides is just amazing,” Smith said. “The NREL educators explained to the students, ‘This is what you’ll be doing in technical careers.’ When they see it and do it, it means so much more to them. They get a lot out of it. They love it, they become engaged.”
“Most of the time, children are afraid to fail, afraid to do something wrong. But with the NREL projects, I love that the children didn’t mind that the blades didn’t spin as fast as they wanted them to. They just said, ‘OK, back to the drawing board.’ That kind of attitude is hard to replicate in the classroom.”