Kennebec Valley Community College offers first solar thermal training in state-of-the-art lab: an interview with Vaughan Woodruff

Vaughan Woodruff’s position at Kennebec Valley Community College (KVCC) is a unique one.   An engineer, educator and Maine native, Woodruff is the only full-time solar thermal instructor at any college in the New England region. He’s operated his own solar thermal design and installation company in Montana and Maine.  As instructor for the Northeast Solar Heating and Cooling Instructor Training Network at KVCC, Woodruff is a NABCEP-Certified Solar Thermal InstallerTM and holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Maine and an M.A. in Education from Prescott College in Arizona.

KVCC is one of nine Regional Training Providers selected by DOE to provide solar thermal training to high schools, colleges, businesses, and other partners across the region in 2011 to introduce the latest solar heating and cooling system design and installation techniques to those best-equipped to pass the knowledge on to a wider audience through a top-down “train the trainers” approach.

Back in February, Woodruff taught the inaugural class at KVCC in its new lab designed and built for the introduction to solar heating & cooling, design and installation curriculum, though the lab will continue to be used for industry trainings, with plans to expand into more advanced solar thermal courses.  It’s a big deal, really.  Vaughan was kind enough to talk about it.  Here’s that conversation for the Solar Instructor Training Network.


SITN:  So it’s official: the first class is a wrap.  How was it?   Were you satisfied with the turnout?

VW:  Definitely.  We had instructors from all seven states in our region, which includes New England and New York, show up for our inaugural class, “Introduction to Solar Heating & Cooling: Design and Installation,” a 40-hour weeklong intensive training to assist instructors who are looking to integrate solar heating and cooling in their vocational and technical schools and training centers.

SITN:  Instructors in…?

VW: All of the attendees were plumbing and heating or building trades instructors, which is our target population. The instructors in the February course represented high schools, community colleges, and industry training programs.

SITN: Sounds encouraging. Can you tell if the attendees felt empowered or overwhelmed, or both?

VW: It’s always difficult to know what students personally took from the course; our continuing follow-up will give us a better sense of what stuck. The course reviews were extremely positive and the student work during the course was impressive.

In terms of materials, the students walked away with two course texts, a binder and CDs filled with model assessments, lab exercises, presentations, and various other resources for instruction and specific topics in solar heating and cooling.

A key part of the course is a comprehensive siting and design activity that sends attendees to different facilities on the campus to assess the suitability of a proposed system design, to determine specific components needed for the job, and to communicate their project to the rest of the class. I was extremely impressed by the level of dialogue and the quality of the conclusions reached by the three groups during this process.

SITN: Sounds like they worked together very well. Do you think classroom performance is an indicator of how they’ll perform in the real world?

VW:  As an instructor, individual results are always a valued commodity. The attendees have take-home assessments that are due next week. We will utilize the results of the assessments to gauge how well we supported their learning during the course and to identify the areas in which we need to provide individual support to each student as we continue our mission to help them effectively implement solar heating and cooling into their programs.

KVCC solar thermal lab

VW:  Yes, this was the first training in our newly renovated Solar Lab.  It’s sited at the former home of KVCC’s carpentry program, which was dormant for 20+ years. The 4000sf space had been primarily utilized as a storage space for the school prior to the implementation of the SITN program. We had completed Phase I of the project – consisting of interior renovations and mechanical upgrades – two weeks prior to our training program. During this phase, a new classroom and three interior mock roofs were constructed for instructional use.

The mock roofs are elevated, which gives us the rare opportunity to do on-the-roof training – collector mounting, fall protection, etc. – regardless of weather.

When an infamous Maine Nor’easter rolled in on Friday of our training, the attendees were pretty happy to be in the warm confines of our lab instead of climbing a snowy roof in the elements or missing the opportunity to do so at all.
The space also allows us the space to have three full systems for the students to work on, as well as ample space for our mobile training units.

In May, Phase II of the renovations will begin, which will outfit the lab with its new roof and functional system – a solar combi-system that will utilize fourteen collectors for supplying facility hot water and for producing the driving heat for a two-ton adsorption chiller, which will supplement the building’s heating and cooling systems.

SITN:  How nice for them (and for you).  And what’s the curriculum based on?

VW:  The curriculum is based on the NABCEP Solar Thermal Installer Task Analysis and utilizes classroom instruction and experiential learning to help attendees learn about basic solar thermal concepts and best practices.

SITN:  I’m guessing there were some challenges, some unexpected obstacles along the way.  Can we assume the experience of the students was varied?  How do you teach to that?

VW:  In preparation for the course, the biggest challenge was getting the lab ready for the students. We had a two-week window between the completion of Phase I and the beginning of the course to plumb three fixed systems and assemble our custom mobile training unit. This narrow window of time led to a number of long days.

During the course, I always find the biggest challenge is to differentiate the curriculum to accommodate the different abilities and interests of our attendees. We had several instructors who had extensive experience with solar thermal systems, others who hadn’t worked with solar but were plumbing and heating instructors, and a very small representation of folks who had no prior experience in plumbing or solar thermal. We designed the course to be versatile and adaptable, and I thought it was successful in doing so. The attendees did a great job of supporting and teaching one another, which is a major luxury as an instructor.

SITN:  Makes your work even more enjoyable, doesn’t it.   What surprised you most about this initial training?

VW:  I was most impressed with the level of dedication shown by the attendees. Many of them were giving up their school vacation week to attend – to come up to cold, snowy Maine, no less. They were so excited and engaged during the training that it made my job quite easy.

SITN:  It’s always gratifying when students love the learning—irrespective of the discipline–as much as the instructor, isn’t it?  I know KVCC has April and June training sessions on the calendar. Are you teaching those?

VW:   I’ll be teaching the course from April 18-22. Demand has been so high that we are forced to turn away students or reconsider them for later trainings.  The summer session has yet to be determined. Due to Phase II construction, we won’t be able to provide a site-based training at the KVCC campus. We are currently exploring the potential of providing an outreach training in the western portion of our region during the summer months.

SITN:  We’ll check back with you in a few months to see how its going.  Great work, Vaughan.

 

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