Blue Skies for Green Education

Story by Bill Kovarik

Ged Moody, Chris Crezmien and Brian Taddonio stand in front of an inverter and the grid connections for a photovoltaic system that provides power to the university’s biodiesel research facility. At the time of this photo, all were students in Appalachian State University’s Appropriate Technology program. Moody is now an instructor and Taddonio is now a grad student, both at ASU. Photo courtesy of Ged Moody

As new green technologies transform the economic landscape, the need for focused education and training has become apparent. While only a few pilot programs specifically designed for green collar jobs are currently in place, community colleges and universities are poised for dramatic expansion.

Climate change and federal stimulus dollars are spurring most of this growth, but the pull of new jobs and student interest is also stimulating new programs and initiatives.

“It’s very exciting,” said Andrew McMahon, a biofuels instructor at North Carolina’s Central Carolina Community College. “We’re feeling our way along – blindly, sometimes. But we realized that if biofuels was going to be a signature industry for the state, we were going to have to train people to work for it.”

Central Carolina had been teaching a course in biofuels since 2001, primarily focused on biodiesel for farm operations. In 2006, after a state committee’s strategic plan called for more targeted educational growth and workforce development, CCCC began piloting a full biofuels program. It is the only community college technical program for biofuels in the region, but it will soon be joined by programs at the undergraduate and graduate level in North Carolina and Tennessee universities.

One of the most exceptional green education programs was established at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., in 1984. The Appropriate Technology major focuses on small-scale energy- and water-related technologies such as biofuels, solar water heaters, photovoltaics and small wind systems.

The program director, Dennis Scanlon, says that the employment outlook for graduates is getting better every day. The program will be expanding with the new stimulus package funding for green jobs.

Similar programs are being established in other states, such as a renewable energy major at John Brown University in Arkansas and a sustainable food and bioenergy systems major at Montana State University.

According to a National Council for Workforce Education report entitled “Going Green,” many jobs that are currently in demand are ‘middle-skilled’ jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. Community colleges exist to fill that gap, the report said. “It is important to note that although there will be a growing number of new green occupations requiring new knowledge, skills, and abilities, it is expected that the majority will be transformed from existing jobs, requiring a redefinition of skill sets, methods, and occupational profiles,” the report said.

While community colleges will see the emergence of first line renewable energy and conservation technicians and professionals, a second line of jobs are coming from existing university programs that adapt to new needs, according to Dennis Grady, former director of Appalachian State’s Energy Center and current graduate dean at Radford University.

At the university level, “most of the initial push for green jobs will involve tweaking what’s already there,” Grady said. Programs such as green engineering, green chemistry, or merged agriculture and environmental studies, have been available since the 1990s and are now set to grow rapidly.

At Virginia Tech, for example, a longstanding interdisciplinary green engineering minor is designed to help students understand the environmental impacts of engineered products and systems. Many similar programs have been adopted in the Appalachian region.

Most scientific or engineering professions now have some efforts underway, according to the Disciplinary Associations Network for Sustainability, which includes 20 major academic groups committed to focusing on climate change and sustainability in their curricula, research and professional development.

Even business schools are getting into the act, with one-third of all U.S. business schools now offering a special concentration that allows MBAs to focus on social and environmental issues, according to a recent Aspen Institute study.

In addition to the greening of established curricula, programs targeted to specific green industries will also be emerging over the next few years. For example, 20 graduate programs for biofuels have been funded through the National Science Foundation and USDA. At the University of Tennessee, the Biosucceed program is developing six graduate and two undergraduate classes. The program web site says the classes will be offered at no cost to the national biomass community.

While few would dispute the need for refocusing traditional disciplines on climate and energy issues, many universities are facing internal controversy over changes to traditional science majors.

“No one would argue for a monomaniacal focus on carbon or climate in the curriculum, but the fact is that the climate change now under way will touch the personal and professional lives of all of today’s students, whether they major in neuroscience, Romance languages, or studio art,” said John Peterson of Oberlin College in a Chronicle of Higher Education article.

“Courses that focus directly on climate change are crucial to building expertise, but a systemic approach is necessary to ensure that the entire campus community and the full spectrum of disciplinary perspectives are brought to bear on the challenge before us,” Peterson said.

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