EDUCATION: Texas Tech wind degree takes off

by PAMELA KING

November 30, 2011

Trevor Sparks grew up working on his parents' oil fields, but when it came time to choose his own career, he wanted to pursue a "cleaner" job.

As a resident of wind-rich Texas, it didn't take him long to find his calling. "Driving down the road you see wind turbines everywhere, and it's a huge industry, and it's new," he said.

Sparks decided to pursue a bachelor's degree in wind energy, a program Texas Tech University launched this fall. Now a junior at the school, Sparks has taken classes with Texas Tech's wind department for the past two years, knowing he would declare a wind energy major once it was offered.

Although renewable energy degrees have popped up at a handful of four-year schools in the United States, programs specific to wind, solar and other clean technologies are largely associated with community colleges, which often have better flexibility to quickly adopt new curricula to reflect emerging job markets.

While renewable energy degrees have typically had a technical focus, Texas Tech's program is the first four-year degree to combine mechanical education with managerial training to prepare students for a wide range of wind careers. Situated in Texas' wind corridor, the university is able to provide students with hands-on research through its Wind Science and Engineering Center (WiSE).

Although Tech's wind program is unique for now, interdisciplinary renewable energy degrees may soon become more prevalent. According to an upcoming study of Texas schools by WiSE, "a majority of them said they plan to start a renewable energy program or a solar program or a wind program in the next five years," said Andy Swift, director of WiSE and Texas Tech's wind degree program.

Swift said Tech's program is ideally suited for students who aim to become wind project managers, but the classes offered through the department can be beneficial for everyone from engineering students to aspiring lawyers.

Wind energy academic adviser Matt Saldana said he is optimistic about graduates' career potential. The job market is booming, and employers are increasingly looking for workers to fill nontechnical roles. "There are [wind] jobs that needed to be filled today, yesterday, two weeks ago, and our students are prepared to fulfill those jobs," Saldana said.

Tech estimates that wind degree holders can expect to earn between $37,000 and $42,000 for entry-level work.

Wind energy senior Mark Meng said he is looking forward to a lucrative career. After graduation, Meng's goal is to jet to Australia to be part of building the country's renewables field and "hop on that money bandwagon."

With wind farms cropping up across the United States and around the globe, he will have his pick of places when it comes to settle down, Meng said. But he considers Texas his home and will probably head back there at some point. "It's an open book, and that's what I like about it," he said.

To expand students' horizons, the Texas Tech wind energy degree program requires international experience, which can be fulfilled with a semester or internship abroad or by working for an international company in the United States.

"This is an international industry," Meng said. "It's almost a mandate for a country to have anything renewable -- at least a little bit." But he said he anticipates Texas will continue to be a wind leader. "Everything is bigger in Texas," he said, "especially our wind."

In the event that wind students choose to leave the industry, Tech faculty and staff emphasized their confidence that the skills the program teaches will be applicable to other fields.

Sparks said his classes have gotten him thinking about ecological footprints and energy conservation, a perspective he said would be valuable should he choose to return to work on his parents' oil fields.

Copyright 2011, Environment and Energy Publishing LLC. Reprinted with permission.


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