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Education: Painting the Campus Green

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Anne L. Fischer,

What is sustainability? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It’s quite the trend in the corporate world, where businesses try to “do the right thing,” whether as a marketing ploy, a way to cut costs or a genuine philosophy. It’s no different on campuses, except that in that venue, young minds are being shaped for the future. And with sustainability seeping into every aspect of their higher education, these young minds will play a significant role in shaping our future.

Seeping into the curriculum

The venerable Princeton Review would not have come up with a list of the top green colleges if environmental consciousness were not a consideration for students when choosing a college. In an article dated July 28, 2008, the Review rated 534 colleges and universities on whether the quality of life on campus is healthy and sustainable, on how well the students are prepared for work and life in a world filled with environmental challenges, and on the school’s overall commitment to environmental issues. Schools that received the highest green rating and that also have photonics offerings include Arizona State University in Tempe, Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, State University of New York at Binghamton, University of Oregon in Eugene, the University of Washington in Seattle and Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the department of electrical and computer engineering has an energy program through which students can learn about all forms of renewable energy. Undergraduate and graduate students participate in research projects offered through the Colorado Power Electronics Center that involve developing systems that intelligently control power. One practical application has been smart photovoltaic (PV) roofing, in which autonomous converters work with maximum-power tracking controllers, allowing the solar roof to capture the maximum possible energy, even when the roof is partially shaded.

Students with this type of practical experience are hard to find yet greatly sought after by industry. According to Bob Erickson, a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Colorado, there’s been a huge surge in interest from students wanting to get into alternative energy technologies. But the downside is that “the majority doesn’t have the technical background.” For those who do have the background and the hands-on experience, industry is literally knocking on the door. Erickson said that, several years ago, the solar industry was pretty much just the Birkenstock-and-tie-dye crowd, but today there’s venture capital flowing in and new businesses starting up that can’t find qualified people to hire. A photonics background, Erickson said, is useful in developing PV devices. “To get thin-film PV processes going, they need people with solid-state or photonics backgrounds.”

Community colleges offer a path to technology careers, with many offering two-year programs in photonics. Many are also stepping up the alternative energy offerings, turning out well-trained students with hands-on experience. As an example, Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, is launching a solar and wind energy program.

Greg Kepner, department chair of manufacturing and industrial programs at Indian Hills, sees alternate energy as important to the future of education and acknowledges that there’s a serious need for skilled workers. Community colleges like Indian Hills stress the importance of hands-on lab work, but one way they’re going a little greener, according to Kepner, is offering many of their courses online. “Being a rural college, students often have to drive a great distance to get to school,” Kepner said. “The plan is to try to cut their time on campus in half and still have the same educational achievement.”

Seeping into practice

All the technology study in the world is not going to bring us closer to a carbon-neutral world unless sustainability is put into practice. The green college list from the Princeton Review hints at this trend, which is apparent on campuses around the world. Taking the greening of academia further is the International Sustainable Campus Network, based at ETH (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich, which is creating a dialogue among green schools. Last spring, a conference spotlighting institutions’ successes and challenges in implementing sustainability was held in “Science City” – a new concept that positions the ETH campus as a sustainable urban center where students and urban dwellers live in the same neighborhoods, share public transportation, make use of the same ecological green space and more. In this way, Science City serves as a model for how today’s greener campus cultivates the future’s greener community.

As the sustainability trend continues, more success stories will be shared and more awards will be distributed. But the greatest success will come when the green campus serves as a model for green homes and businesses, and when the students of today become the problem solvers of tomorrow.

The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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