Renewable energy degree programs quickly gaining interest

Renewable energy degree programs are cropping up at universities across the country and interest in them is growing like a field of budding flowers. While the programs won’t be in full bloom for a few more years, they’re taking root throughout the country and are available for students and practicing engineers alike.

By Ken Schnepf, Managing Editor

Renewable energy degree programs are cropping up at universities across the country and interest in them is growing like a field of budding flowers. While the programs won’t be in full bloom for a few more years, they’re taking root throughout the country and are available for students and practicing engineers alike.

Illinois State University (ISU), Normal, Ill., is the latest to join the trend. With the pending approval of the Illinois State Board of Higher Education, it will offer a B.S. degree in renewable energy in the fall of 2008.

“Ultimately, we’d like 60 students or so in the program,” explains David Kennell, a professor at ISU and instructional assistant of the new program. “We’ve had a lot of interest.” Many who already hold a B.S. degree are seeking a second degree in renewable energy.

A steady stream of calls has been coming in from prospective employers inquiring about the program, Kennell says. It’s designed to prepare participants for work in either the technology track or an economic/public policy track of the new renewable energy field. Kennell says there will be a 20% to 35% growth in the industry bringing jobs in wind, solar energy and biofuels, with many plants in those fields expected to be built in the coming years.

“We want to prepare them for work in the new renewable energy field,” says Kennell.
ISU’s program (www.ilstu.edu/depts/ucc/proposalsoncirculation/Circ2008-2010/Circ%201-16-07.pdf) is designed for both existing engineers who are able to take courses on campus and expand their skills, and to attract new students into engineering. The university already has an integrated manufacturing sequence with courses to help produce maintenance supervisors. “We’re building on those strengths,” says Kennell. The curriculum was reviewed by the renewable energy experts and potential employers who comprise the program advisory committee to ensure that its scope and depth will result in highly trained and knowledgeable graduates. The program would get started through a four-year, nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT), Klamath Falls, Ore., became the first in the U.S. to offer a bachelor’s degree in renewable energy in 2004, with the first graduating class due in 2008. There are currently 25 students enrolled in the program (www.oit.edu/Default.aspx?DN=32347,32301,4503,1,Documents) with as many as 50 expected for the fall term, says Robert Bass, Ph.D., assistant professor and program director, renewable energy systems program at OIT. Freshman coursework is typically done at one of the local community colleges in Portland.

“We saw a demand for this kind of engineering education from both prospective students and from industry,” says Bass. “No other university was preparing graduates for the renewable energy fields at the time, so there was a clear market opportunity.” Many of the students currently in the program have either full- or part-time jobs. Students who have full-time jobs typically are enrolled part-time in the program. It’s possible to earn the degree as either a part-time or full-time student. The average age of students in the program is around 29, but  ages range from the low mid-20s to the mid-50s.

As of the 2004-2005 academic year,  Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif., began offering degree options in its new Atmosphere/Energy program (http://cee.stanford.edu/prospective/ug/majorAtmosEnergy.html). In 2006, the New College of California, San Francisco, established an accredited masters of business administration degree in sustainable enterprise (www.newcollege.edu/news/january_14_06.cfm), dubbed the “Green MBA.” Its curriculum comprises basic business fundamentals that provide essential general business skills, courses that focus on sustainability and entrepreneurship, and a core leadership series. The DOE offers a list of higher education programs, courses, and degrees in energy, as well as energy-related programs at universities and colleges, at www1.eere.energy.gov/education/higher_education_programs.html.

This growing trend isn’t limited to the United States. The University of Exeter, U.K., will offer a renewable energy degree accredited by the Energy Institute starting in 2008. The University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, offers a master’s degree in renewable energy, which provides an education in renewable and distributed energy production to promote the utilization of sustainable energy sources.

These programs are directed not only toward expertise in renewable energy, but renewing interest in engineering as well.

E-mail Managing Editor Ken Schnepf at kschnepf@putman.net.

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