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Colleges test winds before launching energy programs


Laramie County Community College (LCCC) in Wyoming is helping two colleges in different states meet their students’ interest in wind energy while college leaders consider the costs and benefits of their own full-scale programs.

"It’s an experiment. I think it has real potential," said Michael Schmidt, program director of wind energy technology at LCCC. The experiment will give 16 students from Delta College (Michigan) and two students from Pueblo Community College (PCC) in Colorado safety training for climbing 250-foot wind turbines and experience working on a one megawatt wind turbine at the Integrated Systems Training Center on LCCC’s main campus.

The surge in interest, particularly at Delta where 56 students began taking the wind technology prerequisites this fall, is not unique to economically stressed Michigan. It is a national phenomenon fueled by federal funds for development of alternative energy sources. Perhaps not since Man of LaMancha opened on Broadway in 1965 has there been so much interest in the U.S. in windmills.

The effect on community college educators was evident at the 16th National Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigators Conference in October where every session on energy or the environment was filled. Many in attendance were gathering information to help their colleges decide whether to launch wind technology programs.

"It’s an immature industry. We’re not really sure how things are going to develop over the next several years," Schmidt cautioned. He and his LCCC colleagues have been fielding lots of questions from colleges interested in beginning new programs.

LCCC created two wind energy degree programs with support from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) ATE program. The college has significant wind technology equipment and is near large wind farms.

Given the high start-up costs for wind energy programs, Schmidt said he thought LCCC’s resources could be more fully utilized to help other colleges. The collaboration with Delta and PCC, which have well-established industrial maintenance and engineering technology programs, is the demonstration test.

Beginning in June 2010, LCCC will offer intense, month-long wind technology courses to Delta and PCC students. The students will stay in LCCC dorms and will likely pay out-of-state tuition, though this is among the details still being worked out by the colleges. The students’ degree programs will require them to return to LCCC for a second intense session the following summer.

"This really is an example of a way to try to help colleges figure out if a program is viable in their area without making a huge investment in equipment and development of resources and curriculum development. If it works out in a couple years and it becomes a viable (program), then the idea is for us to help them get on their feet," Schmidt said. Schmidt is currently serving as a mentor to PCC through MentorLinks, an American Association of Community Colleges program that pairs community college technical education experts with colleges that want to start or improve advanced technology programs. MentorLinks receives support from NSF.

PCC sought MentorLinks’ assistance in 2008 to start a wind turbine technician program, but with the nearest wind farm nearly 100 miles from the Southwestern Colorado Campus, college leaders are checking workforce predictions.

"Wind technician jobs are still rare largely because of the slowdown in development of wind farms because of the economic situation. The whole thing has not unfolded as fast as we all anticipated that it might," David Cockrell, dean of business and technology at PCC.

Aspects of wind energy have been added to PCC’s curriculum because there are new wind turbine manufacturing facilities near Pueblo and it provides a "valuable paradigm for teaching" electrical and mechanical principles, Cockrell said. Thanks to the partnership with LCCC, the two PCC students interested in becoming wind energy technicians will have a chance to get hands-on experience while the college weighs its options.

At Delta College, the 56 students taking the prerequisites for the two-year wind turbine technology degree know they are vying for 16 spots in the summer program at LCCC.

Matthew Eyre, assistant professor of engineering at Delta, said the college will select students based on their overall grade point averages and their performance in the prerequisites, which apply to other degree programs. He also said the college is exploring other partnerships to serve other students.

"There is huge interest in the program because it’s new and a potential career path," Eyre said.

The college is located about 35 miles from two wind farms, but how the industry will grow in Michigan is far from certain.

The other big unknown for college administrators is how many students will persist in wind energy. Aside from rigorous academics, wind technicians must be physically fit, unafraid to climb 250-foot towers, and capable of working in confined spaces with turbine blades and strong winds moving around them.