High schools getting wind of trend

BY HOLLY HINES | JULY 10, 2009 7:10 AM

Iowa schools are being blown away by the demand for wind-energy training. Experts say they see the upward trend in Iowa, ranked second in the nation for wind power production capacity.

At the UI, officials want to kindle interest early.

This week, the university is hosting a group of around a dozen “talented and gifted” high-school students from around the state for a program related to wind energy.

Four handmade windmill models will make their début on the UI campus today. Students are set to present the colorful windmills — made from such materials as neon paper, stickers, and bendy-straws — to other students involved in Belin-Blank Center summer courses.

“We just don’t get the chance to do this kind of stuff at school,” said Kieran Connolly, 14. “That’s why I like coming here so much.”

An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 technicians will be needed nationally in the next five years to train students in the burgeoning field, said P. Barry Butler, the dean of the UI College of Engineering. But the country only produces a few hundred a year.

“There’s a big imbalance between supply and demand,” he said. “Demand for technicians is just out of sight.”

In Iowa, many say increased interest over the past three years has been a response to wind farms popping up throughout the state. In January, Iowa surpassed California — which is three times bigger — in wind-power production.

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The UI began offering classes to specifically address wind energy three years ago, Butler said.

During the spring semester, Butler taught a new class of 18 students called Fundamentals of Wind Turbines. Engineering Professor Andrew Kusiak taught a course on wind management.

Together, the two classes had approximately 60 students, Butler said.

Though the UI is able to meet the demands of student interest, the field could be improved by expansion, said Butler, and classes regarding the regulatory side of power would be a useful addition.

Northern Iowa — where wind farms have cropped up like clouds on the horizon — has seen increased demand as well. In Mason City, North Iowa Area Community College officials are in need of technicians to teach students interested in its turbine technician diploma program this fall.

Current enrollment is at 40 students, and budget issues are preventing expansion.

The school will offer the program for the second time this coming school year, said Josh Byrnes, agricultural and industrial technology division head at the college.

In the Cedar Rapids area, Kirkwood Community College is in the process of developing a specific wind-energy program as well, said Phil Thomas, the dean of the industrial technology department.

Even high school students are catching on. Approximately a dozen students — including Connolly from the Central Community School district in DeWitt — enrolled in the UI summer program.

Earlier this week, the teenagers visited a local wind-turbine factory.

For future UI engineers, the school may eventually consider adding a specific degree program for wind-energy studies. Currently, graduate students may choose a master’s degree in industrial engineering with wind energy as a concentration, according to the UI website.

Engineering faculty members have discussed adding the program, but they don’t think it would be necessary, Butler said.

“The field doesn’t look specifically to a particular degree,” he said. “They’re looking for people that have skills in the areas they need.”

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