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Preparing Students for Renewable Energy Careers in a Modern Workforce

The continued expansion of the renewable energy industry has created a growing demand for relevant expertise and training. Many colleges and universities are seeing an increasing number of undergraduates expressing interest in relevant job preparation.  In response, faculty and administrators are working to expand and enhance programs and majors in an effort to adapt to a rapidly evolving renewable energy workforce.  But the question remains: how should colleges prepare future movers and shakers in the renewable energy space?

The fields of engineering and science have been taught for decades using the same approaches. While gaining deep disciplinary knowledge in relevant technical fields remains essential, now more than ever,  students must also develop and refine skill-sets in teamwork, communication, leadership, and interdisciplinary systems thinking. Companies in the renewable energy space consistently seek to identify and recruit employees armed with these essential “real-world” skills. As educators, it’s our responsibility to provide our students with the tools and training to meet this challenge.

As a chemistry professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I have seen firsthand the benefits of incorporating real-world problem solving into curriculum. That’s why for the last seven years I’ve been focused on an undergraduate program that admits top students from more than 25 STEM majors to participate in diverse teams, tackling current societal problems such as limiting climate change and producing clean energy – all by working in classrooms, in teaching and research labs, and in collaboration with our corporate partners.

One project developed by UMass Amherst chemistry major Marco Eres represents the iCons approach to hands-on learning. Marco’s iCons project focused on changing the way Americans think about and use clean energy.  He worked on a team with students from other disciplines who helped him think outside the box and conduct research on new technologies that will help Americans limit their reliance on fossil fuels.  Ultimately his final project used organic chemistry and nanotechnologies to develop organic components that can make solar panels less costly to both homeowners and businesses. Researchers are now incorporating these organic nanoparticle components into the low-cost organic solar cells.

Because of this integrated approach to education, Marco gained powerful proficiency in essential skills such as 360o communication that many STEM workers lack.  Students like Marco are poised to enter the renewable energy workforce and hit the ground running.  In Marco’s case, he turned down job offers to pursue a Ph.D., allowing him to reach his goal of leading his own investigations.

This brings me back to my initial question: how should colleges train the renewable energy leaders of tomorrow? Students need to have their cake and eat it too; they need to gain the disciplinary knowledge and skills that come with training in a technical major while applying their knowledge with support and input from their cohort to timely issues, providing them the real world attitudes and skills needed to hit the ground running after college. This gives students a competitive edge that will ultimately benefit the businesses they join.  In order for the industry to continue to progress, it is essential that we nurture these visionaries of tomorrow with the skills they need to bring about the renewable energy future that we all know is possible.