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A 15-year-old Kenneth Walz works on an independent research project on biofuel assigned to him in his 1987 high school chemistry class. From there, he starts to dive into solar energy, wind energy, and eventually, finds himself in grad school to pursue it further.
“It was that one small project from that one influential teacher that gave me that spark,” he says.
Now, Dr. Walz heads the Renewable Energy program at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin.
The Renewable Energy program at Madison College looks to support the city of Madison in its goal to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by educating students and placing them in the renewable energy workforce, while also installing wind, solar, and geothermal systems on their campuses “to help reduce our energy footprint and lessen the environmental impact that we have at each of our schools.”
Though overall school enrollment has declined about five percent since the recession ended, Walz says the Renewable Energy Program has actually grown during that same time period. The ability to take online classes for the program has allowed students from all 50 states and even several other countries to learn about renewable energy. The program prides itself on its combination of online and face-to-face classes. Online classes provide flexibility and accessibility, while the face-to-face classes provide valuable hands-on experience in the construction and installation of actual systems, and the use of tools and equipment.
Admittedly, one problem the program faces is finding faculty to teach about renewable energy. According to Walz, many instructors, including himself, start out in another related STEM field and want to expand their expertise to include renewable energy, but they need to acquire the necessary content knowledge and field experience to do so. On the flip side, there are many people already employed in the renewable energy industry who might want to teach, but they don’t have the necessary teacher training or instructional experience.
“So you have faculty that fall into those two camps. They either have the teaching background but are scrambling to learn the RE content, or they have the RE background but are working to develop their teaching skills,” says Walz. “The industry itself faces similar challenges because renewable energy is an integrative field that requires workers with strong interdisciplinary backgrounds and skill sets.”
The program addresses this issue for their own students by providing renewable energy certificates meant to accompany an Associates Degree in another traditional discipline. Walz compares it to the idea of having a major and a minor at a four year university. Students who come through the program at Madison College will often be studying to become something like an electrician or engineer, but will also be taking 9-12 credits in the Renewable Energy Program to get their certificate. Walz looks at it as students getting “a minor in renewable energy and then [having] their major field of study in a traditional STEM field.”
Although Madison College’s program has been one of the longest running in the state, Walz hopes the program will continue to grow and evolve with the industry. In the meantime, he plans to keep teaching students about the benefits of renewable energy.
“Madison College is committed to continue teaching renewable energy students, and if you interview me 10 years from now, we hopefully will be placing even larger numbers of graduates into [the] industry.”