Energy audits generate interest in STEM subjects, energy-sector careers

By Lesia Winiarskyj

As part of their energy investigations, students at New Britain High School practice using infrared thermometers to measure surface temperature.

More than 60 ninth-graders are conducting schoolwide energy audits as part of CBIA's Cyber-Challenge, a program in which students address complex, real-life problems in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

With help from engineers at General Electric, Northeast Utilities, and UTC Aerospace, student-led "green teams" at East Hartford High School, New Britain High School, and Wilby High School in Waterbury have begun hands-on Project Learning Tree (PLT) GreenSchools! Investigations to reduce their schools' carbon footprints.

Activities include quantifying their schools' energy usage with infrared thermometers, watt meters, and light meters; determining the main sources of energy consumption; and evaluating light quantity and quality for optimal learning. Using baseline data they gather, students will work with school officials to identify and potentially implement energy-saving strategies.

Opportunity Knocking

Now in its fourth year, Cyber-Challenge is a project of CBIA's Education Foundation, funded by the National Science Foundation's Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) grant. Project Learning Tree energy audits are the newest component of the program.

"Cyber-Challenge addresses concerns about the growing demand for workers with strong STEM skills," says Judy Resnick, executive director of CBIA's Education Foundation. "It creates excitement around STEM and gets young people engaged in: and prepared for: Advanced Placement STEM courses in eleventh and twelfth grade."

The energy sector in particular faces a significant talent shortage, Resnick notes, for a combination of reasons. Many traditional energy suppliers: including nuclear, fossil fuel, gas, and electric utilities: project losing half of their workforce to retirement in the next few years.

Combined with upgrades, expansion, and maintenance of Connecticut's utility system and the demand for alternative and renewable energy sources, this opens up a wave of opportunities for young people skilled in STEM.

Project Payoffs

Melissa Gavarrino, science coordinator for East Hartford public schools, has been active in CBIA's Cyber-Challenge for three out of the four years it has run at East Hartford High School.

"This project has been very beneficial to our students," she says. "They're working in teams to solve problems. They're connecting with adults who use science, math, and technology on a daily basis and who earn a living doing something they love. They're seeing adults in action, in high-demand, well-paying careers: often in nontraditional roles, such as male nurses and female engineers. They're getting exposed to career paths they themselves might find interesting, and they're seeing that these careers are within their reach."

Students will present the results of their energy audits this May at Northeast Utilities headquarters in Berlin. After completing their PLT GreenSchools! Investigations, all three schools will be eligible to apply for a $3,000 PLT GreenWorks! Grant, which pays for energy conservation initiatives ranging from installation of programmable thermostats and compact fluorescent lights to infrared and motion sensors for appliances, lights, vending machines, and electronics. The schools will also become eligible for Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund eeSmarts grants from $5,000 to $20,000 for implementing their energy-saving strategies.

Lesia Winiarskyj is a writer and editor at CBIA. She can be reached at lesia.winiarskyj@cbia.com.

In Connecticut, Project Learning Tree (PLT) is a joint partnership of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the Connecticut Forest and Park Association (CFPA). PLT workshop fees cover costs associated with curriculum and equipment, and a portion helps CFPA fulfill its mission of preserving Connecticut's public recreational facilities and natural resources. Project Learning Tree professional development and materials were made possible through funding from the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund and eeSmarts.

For updates on CBIA's education and workforce development programs, click here.