RSDP Happenings - Focus: Student Engagement and Solar Energy
By Elizabeth Braatz
In June 2016 a new user manual on solar thermal heating became publicly available. The manual explains how pool facilities can use RETScreen, a free software program that helps businesses learn whether it would be feasible to use solar power to heat pools. It is a wonderful tool that increases accessibility of renewable energy. However, what the manual doesn’t tell is the story of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) project behind it, the student who wrote it, and the teamwork that brought it all together.
Southwest region and the U of M-Morris
Staying connected to students has always been a priority at RSDP. “Part of our bedrock principles is to develop and sustain a more vibrant partnership with citizens of the region and the land grant university,” said Southwest RSDP Executive Director David Fluegel. “[Our] relationship with the [U of M Morris] campus [and its students] is just a core, essential [part] of the work that we do.”
To help make students aware of the many opportunities on campus, Southwest RSDP works with the Center for Small Towns, a nonprofit run by the University of Minnesota-Morris that connects students to opportunities to get involved with the surrounding community. This was how Kelly Fischer heard about RSDP.
The student connection
Fischer, a junior at the U of M-Morris studying Environmental Science, was hired as a student program assistant with the Southwest RSDP region thanks to her involvement with the Center for Small Towns during her freshman year. Since then, Fischer has helped Southwest RSDP with a variety of projects. One of her largest projects was creating a user manual for RETScreen.
The Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) helped make the project connection. At CERTs’ biannual conference in 2015, Southwest CERTs steering committee members received a lot of questions from local cities and towns about solar thermal for municipal swimming pools. CERTs Southwest Regional Coordinator Netty Fiedler pushed statewide CERTs staff and Southwest RSDP staff to meet with Solar Skies, a solar company, to learn about what kind of assistance RSDP could provide. Thanks to these meetings, Fluegel learned that a free software program called RETScreen already exists and could help facilities assess whether solar power was feasible. However, the program lacked instructions, and Fluegel realized that developing an accompanying manual would be a perfect project for Fischer.
Fischer created a comprehensive manual, and during that process she learned a lot about solar power, writing, and working with others. “I think that one of the big things, personally, was that my knowledge of solar didn’t completely meet what was needed for the RETScreen program,” reflected Fischer.
This meant that Fischer learned a lot about reaching out to other sources of knowledge. Fischer reached out to RETScreen company officials from Solar Skies, CERTs staff, and research scientist Erik Buchanan from the West Central Research and Outreach Center for help revising the document. The end result was an easy-to-read, informative, and concise manual for the surrounding communities. “I was excited that I was able to find the information for all of this,” Fischer said. “It was a lot of double-checking and waiting for responses, and I am really glad I could produce a final product that would give people feasible numbers.”
Although the manual is written, there is plenty to look forward to in the future. Pool facilities are now able to use the manual, provide feedback, and (hopefully) decide to install solar heating. Meanwhile, the Southwest RSDP region will continue to expand opportunities for students. The U of M-Morris recently developed two new majors, Environmental Studies and Environmental Studies, and Fluegel explained how the region has connected with the majors’ faculty so Southwest RSDP can help pass on job opportunities to students. Furthermore, Southwest RSDP’s ongoing collaboration with the U of M-Morris Office of Sustainability, Office of Community Engagement, and Center for Small Towns continues to connect students to opportunities. RSDP is also expanding student outreach efforts through a new partnership with the Institute on the Environment (IonE).
Fluegel has been Fischer’s supervisor for the past three years now, and said it’s been wonderful seeing her growth. “There are good reasons that this is Kelly’s third year working with us. Her contributions have been just invaluable.”
As for Fischer, she will be continuing to work with RSDP. This semester she’s joining the Southwest region’s natural resources work group to promote the creation of native prairies from turf grass, and may also be joining the tourism team to look at arts projects across the state. Fischer said she looks forward to joining RSDP again this year. She also has some advice for freshmen who are where she was three years ago: get involved.
“From the student perspective, this type of work and project has been extremely valuable to me. Talking to other students, I think it’s something that other students should take into account—academics will give you a lot of knowledge about work and a region, but experience will put it into context. [My work with RSDP] has allowed me to invest in my community and in my roots. I strongly encourage students to get involved in the communities—it means so much more when you’re able to connect where you're at and not just the material you learned.”
It seems that many stakeholders—from RSDP to students to the U of M-Morris—have gained from this solar thermal project. If you’re a pool facilities manager who wants to save money and use more renewables, check out this excellent manual. And if you’re a student looking to get more involved in the community and real world projects, check out RSDP.For more information on energy projects, read a blog post on the solar thermal project by CERTs Co-Director Joel Haskard and subscribe to CERTs’ MN Energy Stories.