Dr. Craig Clark
Dr. Craig Clark

For more than 10 years, Alfred State College (ASC) in Alfred, New York, has been educating students in the renewable energy and efficiency areas in the classroom and in the workplace.  Their reputation for hands-on, project-based learning is legendary. According to its website, ASC trains more students for the construction industry than any other college in New York State. Its students have constructed a net-zero energy demonstration home in Wellsville, NY. They have led solar workshops and construction projects at the U.S. National Arboretum (Washington, DC). In 2013, they, along with Alfred University, teamed up for the 2013 China Solar Decathlon, earning a first place award in energy balance. And they’re one of 20 teams selected to compete in the 2015 U.S. Solar Decathlon.

Recently, we visited with Craig Clark, interim vice president academic affairs at Alfred State, about how their hands-on, project-based learning translates from the classroom to the workplace, and readies students for careers in the clean energy industry.

IREC: ASC’s reputation from hands-on learning to the workplace is well known. How did it get started? What was the inspiration?

CC: It started more than 10 years ago when NYSERDA awarded us a grant to train PV installers (2003). In 2007, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) awarded us a grant to further our PV training work and begin a small-wind, hands-on instruction program. In 2009, with funding from NYSERDA, we led the development of a clean energy training consortia to develop educational models for geothermal, solar thermal, small wind and PV systems. It was in 2009 that we also received an ARC grant to develop a weatherization and training curricula which ultimately created our zero energy green home. We’ve been at this for while.

Alfred State College zero energy home
Alfred State College zero energy home

IREC: In an environment where the solar industry is seeing record job growth, how does this affect your relationship with industry? Do you know what skills industry is looking for in an ever-changing clean energy industry?

CC: We have a strong curriculum advisory board in all programs that advises the college and faculty on trends in the industry. In the Electrical Construction and Maintenance Electrician program, it is clear that renewable energy is an important part of the future. We developed both the expertise and the coursework so our students would acquire the skills demanded by industry.

IREC: So you’re happy with ASC’s ability to tailor its curriculum to accommodate the relevant clean energy industry skills. 

CC: Yes, but it’s a work-in-progress. We’re constantly updating our laboratories and programs based on the feedback from our industry partners, our alumni, and the curriculum advisory board that meets yearly. Professional development is also a key piece that includes regional and national workshops and conferences. The strong relationships we have with the IBEW and industry is a key piece that keeps us up to date. On the renewable side, we’ve used the NABCEP job task analysis along with the recent NABCEP accreditation process to assure we are aligned with the skills industry is looking for.

IREC: Talk about the high-profile projects you’ve been involved with, like the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., the 2013 China Solar Decathlon. Can’t get much more real-life than these kinds of projects, right?

CC: Definitely. We’ve had a five-year relationship with the National Arboretum in Washington D.C. where our students and faculty conduct workshops and install working renewable energy systems at the Arboretum.  In fall 2013, we installed a 15kW rooftop system. These types of installations prepare our students for the real world and are the best assessments possible to validate the skills they have developed. The reliance on live work in our programs is the core of the strength or our graduates.

ASC Students Installing a 15kW solar PV installation at the National Arbortetum
ASC Students Installing a 15kW solar PV installation at the National Arbortetum

IREC: I just learned that Alfred State is very active in Skills USA, a national partnership of students, teachers and industry focused on building a skilled workforce. How are you involved with this organization?

CC:  Yes, we’re very active at the state level and host the state competitions. We have sent many students to nationals after they win the state competitions. Our electrician program has done extremely well. In fact, our ASC student won gold!  Last year, students from our solar thermal, PV and green home construction programs were part of the 2013 China Solar Decathlon team.*  Working with Alfred University, we took first place in energy balance. It was a remarkable life experience for our students. We’re one of 20 teams selected for the 2015 Solar Decathlon. Students work on these projects as part of their regular day to day laboratories.

Alfred State and China Solar Decathlon team
Alfred State and China Solar Decathlon team

IREC: With your tight partnership with industry, how’s job placement? Is it good locally? Regionally? 

CC: Most students stay here in the region, but our graduates are working all across the US. In fact, one recent graduate has been working in Nevada on PV installations. The placement and transfer rate of programs across the college, including our electrician program, has consistently been 98%- 99%. We feel this can be attributed to time on task and reliance on live work. Our graduates understand the technical aspects, work well in teams and have an abundance of live work experiences that prepare them for the various careers in the clean energy sector.

IREC: Does industry help fund projects at Alfred State? 

CC: Many of our projects have been grants from various agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission, NYSERDA. Industry partners, like SIEMENS and BP, donate equipment and parts. And our alumni are constantly sending us leads and equipment. The 2009 NYSERDA grant for the clean energy training consortia made a huge difference in providing laboratories for PV, small wind, geothermal and solar thermal for various programs on campus.

IREC: Is this kind of industry relationship absolutely essential and fundamental to build the quality-trained clean energy workforce? 

CC: Relationships with alumni, industry, unions, and government are absolutely critical to the success of any program. They all take time and persistence of faculty and the administration to develop and nurture.

IREC: What’s surprised you the most about your work?

CC: Alfred State has been able to build from a very small beginning in renewable energy in 2003 to be a leader with great projects that have been funded by the ARC, NYSERDA, BP and others. It pays to be persistent and the result has been great learning opportunities for faculty and students.

IREC: What advice do you give to incoming students who might be considering entering the clean energy field? 

CC: Look at programs that align with your passion and include development of broader skills. Our PV and wind systems curriculum is imbedded in our electrician program so graduates have the skills of an electrician along with PV and wind. This type of balance will allow a graduate to be employed in a variety of careers and that is important.

IREC: Integrating clean energy curriculum into existing curriculum makes so much sense for students. IREC and the Solar Instructor Training Network talk about that in Solar Content Integration Solar Energy Education and Training Best Practices. What advice would you give to schools that might be considering starting a clean energy program? 

CC: Start small and develop a long-term plan. This will allow development of programs and grants as the coursework grows. Imbedding clean energy with other skills is important so graduates can be employed in a broader set of careers that include clean energy. This gives graduates the ability to change career paths in the future and become leaders with more comprehensive skills. We also continue to say yes and develop partnerships. This is only possible through the faculty and students who engage in the projects and the coursework.

*Solar Decathlon China was hosted by the National Energy Administration and the U.S. Department of Energy, organized by Peking University and supported by private companies.)

Images: courtesy Alfred State