The IEEE Global Classroom’s role in sustainable energy development

How educational technology aids IEEE Smart Village program for off-grid communities

A recent op-ed piece in this publication by my colleague, Robin Podmore, introduced readers to the IEEE Smart Village Initiative, which is designed to empower off-grid communities through education and the creation of sustainable, locally owned entrepreneurial energy businesses. I’d like to provide further insights into how technology, local energy markets, and education are dovetailing in a larger sense.

Our vision is to bring basic electrical and educational services to more than 50 million people by 2025. That’s an ambitious goal. But consider that about 1.3 billion people – nearly 20 percent of the world’s population – live without access to electricity.

To bring renewable energy and electricity to off-grid villages, we’re identifying local entrepreneurs who are able and willing to provide affordable and more environmentally friendly power in place of kerosene and candles. I’ll use this blog to describe how we’re using education to further this mission.

The IEEE Global Classroom at the Posner Center in Denver will play two crucial roles in the educational aspect of the IEEE Smart Village mission. First, the classroom facilitates live broadcasts of integrated Development Practice courses, records them and posts materials to the Regis University, IEEE Smart Village, and Posner websites. Second, the classroom vitally links at-risk and affluent communities through joint coursework, research, and case studies that track their own development learning.

We define “at-risk” communities as those off-grid villages whose residents need access to electricity for a host of applications that we in the developed world take for granted. “Affluent” communities, by contrast, are those that enjoy amenities and global access, yet live beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity and, therefore, are based on unsustainable practices.

We believe that both types of communities can and must learn from each other. We can provide technology, education and training support, and sustainable development models for both realities to apply, refine, and use to sustain better livelihoods and the planet.  

We’ve formalized a curriculum to this end and, currently, we are running a pilot educational program with 25 students from nine countries and four continents. One-third of them are engineers. Two-thirds of them are in other development sectors, including health, education and agriculture. We’re developing an educational approach that will be of equal benefit to them all. We’re exploring whether the teaching method is effective, whether the technology is appropriate and the course content is useful. We’re learning how to deploy engineering solutions in new markets, share case studies and business models and apply lessons learned. We’ll use feedback from all participants to revise our approach and curriculum as we move forward.

I cannot point to another educational experiment in which this reciprocal approach is being honed and shared via advanced communication technologies. By January 2016, we’ll launch a full Master in Development Practice degree program of eight core courses, six elective four-course development tracks, and six-month field immersions – all facilitated by the IEEE Global Classroom.

The classroom will also be used to develop and disseminate vocational technology modules on how to build and maintain appropriate technologies as the basis for sustainable economic development. Not incidentally, the IEEE Smart Village is just one of 60 tenants at the Posner Center right now and the other 59 organizations are learning from us how to use the classroom for their own communication and instruction with their stakeholders in 106 countries worldwide.

In the first four courses of our pilot curriculum, we’re presenting development practice models and different entry points for such work, the skills someone would need in the field and how to scale up these efforts. Each course has an engineering component and case study. But engineers necessarily work among other development sectors, so these courses and cases situate engineers among practitioners in public health, agriculture, water security, anthropology, and so on. We’re trying to draw the engineer into a larger universe of cross-cutting skills and disciplines, as well as cross-boundary learning about different cultures, different languages. The next four courses will focus on climate, energy and ecology, gender identity and culture, mapping metrics and money, and human rights, duties and dignity. Engineers may thus discern their role within this larger context.

Through these activities and with the worldwide reach of the IEEE Global Classroom, we hope to replace an outdated charity model with one of cultural and technological reciprocity between the developing and developed worlds. Also, we want the local entrepreneurs we support through grants and education to see how they fit with their counterparts around the world. So we require deliverables from every entrepreneur in the IEEE Smart Village program, including a case study, which can be honed and disseminated for everyone’s benefit via the IEEE Global Classroom.

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s a good time for readers of Renewable Energy World to make a donation to help make the IEEE Smart Village mission a reality. After all, renewable energy has always been a major component of our collective desire to change the world for the better. Here’s an opportunity to make a significant, sustainable impact on one of the great challenges of our time.

To donate to IEEE Smart Village, please visit: http://ieee-smart-village.org/donate/

To volunteer with the IEEE Smart Village, please visit: http://ieee-smart-village.org/get-involved/volunteer/

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Dan Wessner, IEEE Smart Village Executive Committee and Professor of Politics, Regis University

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