UB TCIE at heart of unifying SUNY efforts to prepare clean energy workforce

At far right, Engineering Technology Professor Ilya Grinberg talks about one of the trainers in SUNY Buffalo State’s Smart Grid Laboratory. From left are Timothy Leyh of UB TCIE, John Williams of Alfred State College, and Jennifer Flagg and Gary Simon of UB TCIE.

At far right, Engineering Technology Professor Ilya Grinberg talks about one of the trainers in SUNY Buffalo State’s Smart Grid Laboratory. From left are Timothy Leyh of UB TCIE, John Williams of Alfred State College, and Jennifer Flagg and Gary Simon of UB TCIE.

By Tracy Puckett

Release Date: December 17, 2019

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Tim Leyh head shot.
“The goal is to create a network across the state of learning opportunities that are standardized. So if there are four or five of these regional demonstration centers, each has the same equipment and the same tests. ”
Timothy Leyh, executive director
UB Center for Industrial Effectiveness

BUFFALO, N.Y. — On a Friday afternoon in mid-November, Engineering Technology Professor Ilya Grinberg leads visitors around the Smart Grid Laboratory in SUNY Buffalo State’s Technology Building, explaining the various energy-related trainers lining the perimeter of the room.

Among the group are two deans — one from Alfred State College and the other from SUNY Erie — and three directors from the University at Buffalo. They are here to absorb information and collect the type of insights that often inspire a new synergy.

An energy-focused gathering like this was unlikely two years ago. When it came to the topic of renewable energy education, State University of New York (SUNY) schools tended to operate in siloes.

But the scenario is changing, thanks to a SUNY initiative and an extra push from the UB Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE).

Since this summer, a team from TCIE has heightened communication among 10 SUNY entities with monthly meetings and tours like the one arranged at Buffalo State.

The institutes span the state, ranging from community colleges to research universities. Their mantra is “if you want to go far, you go together.”

“Every conversation triggers more and more ideas,” Grinberg comments. “Stay tuned. It’s a work in progress.”

At the very least, a free introductory clean energy course is in the works, as is a website inventorying SUNY’s slate of energy education pathways.    

Consortium roots

The group’s formation started in 2018 with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Climate Jobs NY initiative. Eleven SUNY campuses received funding in the form of two-year Performance Improvement Fund (PIF) grants to implement clean energy workforce proposals in support of New York’s push to fight climate change and reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

SUNY requires PIF recipients to participate in a Community of Practice (CoP), which meets twice a year for project reporting. There are a number of CoPs organized around specific areas of specialty – clean energy education being one. The intention of all is to establish mutual goals, foster shared resources and best practices, and work toward collective outcomes.

Many clean energy CoP members did not previously know each other and had little incentive to communicate. They were largely unaware of the programs beyond their own institutions.

“The PIF Community of Practice meetings are a great opportunity for us to see what the PIF recipients are doing,” explains Jennifer Flagg, TCIE project director. “But they don’t provide enough face time to actually initiate the collaborations that are now happening.”

The first session sparked murmurs of “I’m working on something similar. Why aren’t we talking?” So Flagg and TCIE took the reins when fellow CoP members voiced desire to continue the conversation beyond SUNY’s mandate. TCIE hosts monthly calls for the spinoff consortium of nearly 30 individuals and organizes campus visits to view labs and equipment.

“I think it’s much needed,” says Marjaneh Issapour, director of the Renewable Energy and Sustainability Center (RESC) at Farmingdale State College. “It’s a good platform to exchange ideas, complement what’s being done at other campuses, and leverage each other.”

Mark Hoeber, dean of continuing education at SUNY Erie, feels similarly.

“The potential is there to learn from one another,” he says, “so we’re not repeating the same courses, and not repeating the same mistakes.”

Clean energy 101

TCIE is motivated to nurture a coalition because of its PIF project. In fact, UB’s endeavor is the subject of most monthly meetings and the impetus for the campus visits. 

A clean energy workforce assessment report, compiled with assistance from Alfred State as part one of the PIF, found that Western New York’s higher education institutions are churning out enough students to fill regional clean energy job openings, but graduates are either leaving the area or entering different industries.    

To stimulate interest in the field, TCIE’s second phase of the project is creating an online clean energy 101 course available for free to anyone, SUNY student or not. It will incorporate materials from existing content that includes topics such as solar, geothermal, wind and green building.

The consortium is the perfect avenue for identifying and assembling the most suitable curriculum. Sprinkled into the material will be information about various SUNY energy programs to entice further learning.  

Plans call for an optional, hands-on learning experience to supplement the course and provide opportunity to earn a digital badge. Timothy Leyh, TCIE executive director, explains the campus tours are a way to scope SUNY assets and determine the demonstrations and assessments.

“The goal is to create a network across the state of learning opportunities that are standardized,” Leyh says. “So if there are four or five of these regional demonstration centers, each has the same equipment and the same tests.”

Students from a SUNY Erie web development class are building a new website to promote this introductory course, as well as current energy programs offered by consortium members and new offerings fueled by PIF funds. The site will also incorporate a section for employers to advertise jobs.    

Hoeber sees tremendous value in the website. He has been in higher education long enough to know that the market is extremely competitive.

“If we’re willing to educate together and market together, we all can be successful,” he says.

The potential

One of Farmingdale’s distinctive features is the RESC, regarded as one of SUNY’s most robust centers for renewable/sustainable workforce training. Regardless, Issapour embraced the opportunity to join the consortium because it is an outlet for extending its reach.

“We can take some of the programs we developed and help other SUNY schools by modifying them and bringing in modules to adapt them,” she explains.

In Issapour’s view, the consortium is the genesis for a larger bandwidth of people advancing clean energy education across the state. A new network of like-minded contacts – which the group hopes will only expand – means a better chance of finding partners for collaborating and pursuing innovation.

For example, Grinberg’s lofty goal is to establish a federally funded center focused on energy research, development and education. He has the ear of consortium members.

Other activities are taking place on the immediate horizon, too:  

  • SUNY Erie is in talks with TCIE to update and digitize three, 6-hour courses about solar photovoltaic technology once delivered as in-person professional workshops
  • SUNY Buffalo State and SUNY Polytechnic Institute are discussing ways to share and improve curriculum about smart and efficient buildings

I think we’re working together now instead of just reporting out to each other. We couldn’t have done it without the CoP,” Flagg says. “And you can’t force that type of thing. With the way it grew organically, the folks who are involved are committed.”

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