Energy in education

Who needs to travel to a conference when you can host one and bring it – and the cool techie equipment – to you? Bonus points for the networking opportunities with industry leaders who attend a conference, too.

That’s what Ted Kotsakis, dean of technology for Clark College, and Chris Lewis, a technology instructor at the college, figured two years ago when they set out to host a technology instruction conference at Clark College’s Columbia Tech Center facility. In its second year, with some 50 people and equipment in the six-figure dollar value range, the conference was held earlier this month at the tech center. New Jersey-based training equipment developer Lab-Volt Systems offered most of the presentations.

“It’s all about creating partners with the business industry,” Kotsakis said. “This is our chance to pick their brains.”

Fostering the skilled workers of tomorrow

Both Kotsakis and Lewis were wide-eyed and enthusiastic about checking out the equipment at the conference, which the industry dubs trainers. Priced at about $50,000 each, the trainers are used in conjunction with curriculum to teach students wind turbine systems, smart grid, renewable energy systems with solar energy, hydrogen fuel cells and more.

As Lewis explains it, he first reached out to the local business community two years ago when he set out to revamp existing technology programs at Clark College. Lewis, who has taught at the college for 12 years, wanted the programs to benefit the local community by creating good workers who hold good jobs.

Rather than lagging behind the times, as technology leapfrogs ahead, Lewis envisioned a program with a modern, up-to-date curriculum, so that graduates could immediately benefit from their education and employers could immediately benefit from graduates’ skills. That charge has meant constant redevelopment of courses, networking with companies that are in need of trained workers, other educators and, of course, trainer equipment companies.

“We’re always doing curriculum development,” said Kotsakis in response to changes.

For Lewis’ part, he sees the educational opportunities as a boon for Clark County.

“An educated community is a better community [to live in],” Lewis said, pointing to job stability, income potential and a lifetime of curiosity.

That’s why, for Lewis, when he sees automation in places like the grocery store, with self-checking lines, he gets excited.

“When I see that, I see the world advancing,” Lewis explained. “I see good paying jobs [to maintain those systems].”

Clark College has 18 students in its technology program now, with 14 students about to begin an employer-sponsored program for Anderson Dairy. The students will learn technology that will help the dairy maintain its automated equipment, according to Lewis.

Eventually, Lewis hopes to have 40 students enrolled in the program, which includes coursework in mechatronics – a combination of electronics and mechanics – and power utilities. A program in smart systems, with buildings and homes designed for energy efficiency, will be offered next. And the final phase is a program in refrigeration systems, which will be offered in about 18 months.

Kotsakis estimates the school has spent $1.7 million on the training equipment. Another $500,000 will be needed for the refrigeration training equipment necessary to start that program. Kotsakis said grants will cover those costs.

Smarter technology

At the conference, John Smith of Lab-Volt offered a tour. He explained how a pipeline module for institutional process and controls could ready a student for a job with an oil refinery – or a food maker.

“It applies to a lot more than the (Alaskan) pipeline,” Smith said.

A power electronics module, with more switches and gizmos than an airplane cockpit, educates students about power distribution on an electrical grid, Smith explained.

“You’re bringing a big grid to a classroom level,” he said.

Riad El Masri, president of Graymark in Tustin, California, demonstrated a smart grid system trainer for a home-based system. It’s designed to train technicians who would install and repair home-based smart systems for energy efficiency. Several meters showed the power level that a home was using and calculated the electric bill based on kilowatt hour charges.

“As a consumer, I see
that and I say ‘Oh, let me turn off my heater,’” El Masri said.

Potential students would not only install the monitoring equipment, but they would also set up efficiency pre-sets to take advantage of off-peak electricity charges and connect the homeowner’s system to an Internet-based monitoring system for control while away from home. Then, a homeowner could receive messages about usage spikes, which advances billing to a higher price point. That homeowner, in turn, could remotely shut off lights, heating and cooling systems and the like to maintain energy efficiency.

“With these, the homeowner has total control of their electrical usage,” El Masri said.

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