National Grid partners with SEAS to build an education pipeline

The UB/National Grid Leadership Camp aims to introduce engineering concepts to under-represented high school students with an aptitude for STEM.

By Jim Bisco

National Grid, a prominent multinational energy company, is in the process of developing a different type of pipeline in Western New York—one through which the energy of learning what it means to become an engineer flows freely. The company’s considerable efforts in this area were recognized this spring when it was named UB Engineering’s Corporate Partner of the Year.

National Grid’s educational involvement was borne out of a recognized need to expand careers in engineering to include a more diverse population. So, five summers ago, the company partnered with UB to create a four-day engineering summer camp primarily for under- represented high school students interested in STEM careers.

“Our hope is that this camp will help build a level of interest for students with an aptitude for engineering but little or no exposure to it,” said Dennis Elsenbeck, Director, New Energy Solutions Stakeholder and Policy at National Grid, and a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council (DAC). “We want to help remove the barriers or challenges women and minorities face in STEM fields.“

Campers live on the UB campus and participate in hands-on activities in engineering design, team-building and leadership skills, lab and computer exercises, field trips, and recreational activities. Students who successfully complete the program receive a scholarship to UB.

When research noted that decisions for STEM-oriented careers were being made as early as the sixth grade, National Grid’s pipeline of education expanded further, adopting Science is Elementary, a K-12 program that SEAS Dean Liesl Folks brought from California to Westminster Community Charter School.

At UB, Elsenbeck and fellow DAC members talk directly with students, offer advice and guidance about their careers, and listen to learn how perceptions of engineering are changing. The company’s support extends to attracting faculty with an endowed professorship, an initiative that helped to bring Quanxi Jia, a world-renowned scholar, back to his alma mater as part of UB’s new Department of Materials Design and Innovation.

Electrical engineering faculty members Jennifer Zirnheld and Kevin Burke have worked on various projects with National Grid, the latest being a feasibility study for implementation of a microgrid that would allow the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and surrounding neighborhood to sustain power in the event of a catastrophic outage.

“There are enormous opportunities for our students to match the theory they are learning in class to applied research that accelerates their own learning,” says Zirnheld.

Both faculty members are enthusiastic about their participation in the Science is Elementary program. Zirnheld, who volunteers as classroom lead, says that being able to encourage a child while they struggle to accomplish a task and celebrate with them when they exceed their own expectations is the essence of discovery.

“National Grid is helping to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers,” she states. Burke concurs. “Most of these kids are minorities. So it’s important to see someone who looks like them in front of a room saying, ‘You can be a scientist.”

For National Grid, it’s all about creating a pipeline of experiential learning to bring engineering to life. In Elsenbeck’s view, “If young people are excited about what they’re doing and are exposed early to what our industry is all about, we feel that’s better for the university, for the potential engineer as they go forward, and for our company.”

National Grid’s Daniel Keating (left) and Natalie Terhaar show off their Corporate Partner of the Year award with UB’s Tim Siderakis.