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Students use spring break to power a community

Students use spring break to power a community

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Fourteen FLC students spent their spring break getting some sun – but rather than soaking it up on a beach, they harnessed it to help power a remote community on the Navajo Nation in central New Mexico. 

Six Engineering students and eight student volunteers from a variety of disciplines spent the first week in March installing solar systems on the Counselor Chapter’s chapter house and on three residences. For the Engineering majors, this is their senior design project, which they have spent the school year assessing, sizing, and designing, and are now putting in place. 

This kind of experience is the best kind of learning, says Professor of Engineering Laurie Williams, who mentored the students on their projects and at the worksite. 

“Whenever you step out of the classroom and get into the field, there are going to be problems thrown at you that you didn’t anticipate in the classroom or design process,” she explains. “So for the engineering team, this satisfies their senior design requirement. But more importantly it’s a real-life experience, and not just meeting a course requirement.”

The project was sponsored by GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit solar installer based in Oakland, California, that gives college students opportunities to install solar projects in underserved communities. Through the program, 200 students from 22 colleges and universities and 15 states spent their school breaks this year installing no-cost solar in remote areas in California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nepal. FLC’s involvement was funded by benefactor donors and grants. 

At the project in the Counselor Chapter, two faculty members and GRID Alternatives staff supervised students as they practiced practical skills while helping the chapter save money. They were also, though, at same time learning about the relationship between solar energy, politics, and economics.

“Having students from a wide range of disciplines brings together different ways we can look at social and ecological issues,” says Becky Clausen, associate professor and chair of Sociology, who is also working with students at the installation site. “That means, from how we do the installation, to social justice issues around energy, to the ecological issues and how this can help our region reduce carbon emissions.”

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