“The microgrid and the master’s programwere premeditated to increase the reach and provide a venue of [research and experimentation] that has been realized today,” Mowry said. “All the electrical engineering faculty are involved with the grad programand have students doing research. …We’re providing the mechanisms and paths where students can excel rather easily up to the master’s level, which buys a big bang for students moving up and into the workforce.”
Kabalan said it’s easy to envision the capacity for 30 to 40 students working on the microgrid in the near future as partnerships grow and research opportunities arise. Weinkauf said he heard a straightforward assessment of this kind of experience for students from Fowke as they left the FDC following the flip- switch ceremony: “Ben said to [President] Julie [Sullivan], ‘Xcel would hire every single one of those students in a heartbeat. No one else is getting this kind of experience,’” Weinkauf recalled. COMING SOON TO A HOME NEAR YOU The microgrid represents a significant step forward in St. Thomas’ ability to contribute to the ongoing effort to combat climate change. “We are building what, hopefully, you will see in your home in five to 10 years,” Kabalan said. “We’re building technology that, just like a cell phone, will be very normal. …Energy production will either be 50% of the problem or 50% of the solution. We’re part of the solution.” The microgrid also represents a continuation of the school’s desire to educate “a different kind of engineer,” producing students with an understanding of their place in the world and a desire to use their skills to make positive impacts. “The more you’re out of the textbook and in the real space, the better of a problem-solver you’re going to be. That is part of the philosophy that’s captured in the [microgrid] system we’ve
Dr. Mahmoud Kabalan
built,” Weinkauf said. “What’s important for students to understand is that there are no silver bullets to these big problems. It’s the synthesis of a lot of ideas, a lot of technology, a lot of work, which is all carved away with small steps. … It’s going to be an aggregate of a lot of types of solutions in that space of energy independence and security.” “The end goal is to help lead in making microgrids more affordable to the average consumer and spreading this technology,” Pietsch said. “Being able to take the experience of engineering and applying it to a business degree, then combining those to help save the planet? I can do that here.” More than ever before, St. Thomas is poised to – as Mowry described it – “roll up our sleeves and get to that work,” emerging as a national leader going forward where the possibilities remain endless.
It hasn’t taken long for students to recognize the value the microgrid offers to their education. Sophomore electrical engineering student Rachel Pietsch joined the team as a first-year. Her father, an electrical engineer, told her many of the components and systems are the same at his company. “I’ve been in interviews with companies working with microgrids, and they’re so excited undergrads are getting the chance to work on them,” Pietsch said. “Seeing how learning these skills can help me in industry is huge, especially when microgrids are becoming a pretty big part of combatting climate change.”
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