Curriculum Sharing for Next Gen Power Systems Workforce Goes Multi-Institutional

My entire educational experience, from kindergarten through post-secondary, was probably a lot like yours­ – the standard one teacher for one class. But an innovative curriculum sharing model from the FEEDER consortium (Foundations for Energy Engineering for Distributed Energy Resources) is launching today’s power systems engineering students and faculty into completely new learning frontiers. Makes me wish I were in school today.

With early funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, the Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment (GEARED) program was created to build a training and educational framework to grow the expertise and preparedness of current and future electric utility sector professionals specifically to accommodate distributed energy technologies onto the grid. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) serves as GEARED’s National Network Administrator.

FEEDER, one of three consortium under GEARED, is proving multi-faculty instructional resources and expertise across eight FEEDER consortium institutions are greater than the resources and expertise within any single institution.

“Students from different universities now have access to curriculum that wouldn’t have been possible without the consortium, either because of lack of expertise or staffing limitations,” said Larry Holloway, Interim Dean, College of Engineering, University of Kentucky. “By offering different and diverse courses from experts, students increase their knowledge about renewable energy and power engineering issues, preparing them to take their place in today’s power systems engineering workforce.”

The concept of collaborative curriculum, or shared curriculum, is a widely accepted approach to delivering high quality instruction. The process of coordinating course sharing agreements between partner universities was challenging. “Working out partnership agreements across so many institutions is unusual and ambitious, said Dr. Zhihua Qu, Professor and Chair of University of Central Florida’s Electrical and Computer Engineering department and director of the FEEDER Center. “But with these agreements, we’re able to offer a wider variety of power systems and renewable energy courses to more students across more universities.”

“Having been involved at multiple levels of higher education for over three decades, I’m not surprised by the challenges surrounding the legal aspects of getting access to curriculum for students from different universities,” said Joe Sarubbi, GEARED’s project manager.

The confluence of three significant factors motivated the FEEDER consortium to pursue the curriculum sharing model:

1) Current and future employment conditions of the power engineering workforce. According to the Department of Labor, as much as 50 percent of the nation’s utility workforce will retire in the next five to 10 years. Nine percent are ready to retire now based on current retirement assumptions. Projected demand to educate enough students exceeds the ability of any one or two institutions. Few institutions have the faculty specialties and capacity to teach the range of these topics on a regular basis.

By tapping into subject expertise and teaching resources across multiple institutions, each FEEDER institution can increase the number, type and frequency of available course offerings for their students,” said Holloway. “In fact, some courses (such as one of our renewable energy courses) have content from six different faculty members across three universities. This allows the consortium to prepare more students more effectively for the modern power engineering workforce than any one institution or instructor could do independently.”

2) Adding renewable energy and distributed energy resources courses for a changing electric power grid. In the early stages of the FEEDER consortium, 11 industry partners offered input on 36 potential course topics. Primarily from the electric utility industry, industry partners also included power equipment manufacturers and other related industries. Faculty from FEEDER institutions shared their expertise with other faculty. This combination of industry input and diverse faculty expertise has built a robust curriculum that continues to evolve.

Not surprisingly, utilities and industry want graduates who have not only a strong understanding of the fundamentals of power systems but also understand renewable and distributed power generation, data analytics, cyber systems security, economics and public policy.

“Industry has been involved in identifying directions of the shared curriculum,” said Holloway. “FEEDER has an industrial advisory board, and many partner universities have strong industry relations also. We surveyed companies to identify topics that industry wants for our students. Based on those results, we’ve encouraged faculty to develop course materials that support those topics prioritized by our industry partners.”

3) How to deliver the sharing curriculum model. Since each university within the consortium had expertise in different, focused areas of the newly identified curriculum, the FEEDER consortium is using three different cross-institutional educational activities:

  • Cross-institutional blended course: content developed across multiple instructors across multiple institutions. Delivered by distance and supplemented or integrated with live instruction by local faculty;
  • Cross-institutional distance course: content developed by faculty at one or more institutions, but delivered exclusively through distance learning to students at other institutions; and
  • Cross-institutional educational experience: where students from multiple institutions gather in one location for a short-term (approximately one week), live, intensive educational experience. For the past three years, FEEDER’s ‘summer institutes’ included classroom and visits to industrial, national lab, and research demonstration sites related to the focus of the summer institute. This year, the University of Pittsburgh will host FEEDER’s summer institute from June 4-9.

How are students reacting to the curriculum sharing model?

Emma Raszmann, electrical engineering undergraduate, University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering, interned last year at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The FEEDER summer workshop at NREL started one week before she started her internship. “It was the perfect transition to my summer internship and provided a great overview of topics relevant to my summer research.”

For Matt Aberman, visiting NREL was transformative. “After witnessing the current ongoing research from FEEDER faculty and students and the types of work NREL is working on, I couldn’t be more excited. I feel right at home studying and working in this industry. This is absolutely where I would like to spend my career.”

Other FEEDER consortium students seem to like the curriculum sharing model. “I like the real world applications and connections,” said one. “Because I travel for work, I’m able to watch the lectures online and keep up with the work,” said another.

“Make no mistake; this is a big deal in higher education,” said Sarubbi. “FEEDER students and faculty, and ultimately consumers, are the beneficiaries of FEEDER’s curriculum sharing efforts.”

Source: A Multi-Institutional Approach to Delivering Shared Curricula for Developing a Next Generation Energy Workforce


Image: UC/Irvine Digital Lab