Share Share this | Facebook Twitter YouTube LinkedIn Flipboard

IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Mike Andrews

Mike AndrewsMike Andrews is a senior member of IEEE and a Region 6 Director. An active IEEE volunteer, he has served on the IEEE Public Visibility, GOLD, N&A, IB&SC and Awards committees. He has a strong commitment to STEM education programs and serves as president of the Smart Education Foundation, which created and promotes the SMART Competition.

In this interview, Mike Andrews discusses the importance of STEM education for high school students and describes the volunteer-led SMART Competition, which aims to increase understanding of smart grid concepts at the high school level. Mr. Andrews discusses the value of the competition to students and industry and invites IEEE members and societies to lend their support to the program.

Question: You are one of the founders of the SMART Competition for high school students. Could you provide a brief overview of the competition?

SMART Competition is a STEM educational and workforce development program for high school students. The competition focuses on smart grid and sustainable energy projects that can be applied to high school campuses. It challenges students to conduct an energy audit of a virtual school gymnasium and then create a simulated, improved design that considers climate and other site-specific variables particular to the students’ actual campus locations. The students are encouraged to use a full range of smart grid and power system technologies, renewable resources, sustainable materials and intelligent building designs. They are given professional infrastructure design and energy simulation software awarded by Bentley Systems to use for their projects.

Mark Schneider, a technical director for Bentley Systems, helped create the competition and provides donated staff time to support the effort. The IEEE Foundation provided funding to the program last year and the IEEE Power & Energy Society and the IEEE Smart Grid Committee have been actively involved.

What is the status of the competition today?

We are registering students for the 2014 competition. This is the fourth year of the program and the 2014 competition will be our third event. It is also the first event that we’re actively promoting. We soft-launched the previous competitions so we could evaluate the process, resource materials and software and refine the program based on these initial experiences. We’re ready to scale the program, but it many ways it is already a success. Last year we had participation from 84 schools based in countries as far ranging as the United States, China, India and Turkey.

What are the motivations for the SMART Competition and why is it important?

Our passion is to create a smart grid knowledge base among the next generation of engineering and technical professionals. We also want to inspire a new generation of innovators in this field.

The competition teaches students about power systems and the robust, dynamic communications and control systems that are needed in smart grids. I believe the experience will improve each participant’s learning overall, help them clarify their college aspirations and later become very dynamic college students, working professionals or entrepreneurs. Students can benefit immediately. Some students have obtained summer jobs right after participating in the competition because they know how to use Bentley software.

Fundamentally, the program is also driven by the need for more high school programs that provide STEM or career and technology education (CTE) opportunities. The Future City Competition that IEEE originated years ago for middle school students has been highly successful for that age group, but the engineering profession hasn’t created a comparable high school program that is low-cost and accessible to anyone regardless of their personal resources. All a student needs for the SMART Competition is a computer. We provide the software. The registration fee is $100 per team. We’ll waive the fee if a team can’t afford it.

What are your goals for the 2014 current competition and beyond?

This year we want to increase the number of teams that get involved. We are encouraging students not only to design and submit a project, but to also use the system and the donated software as their own, personal testbed for exploring powerful, real-world design tools. And we’re encouraging teachers who support school teams to think more creatively about using interdisciplinary teams for the competition.

We also want to increase the number of students who complete their projects. It is not surprising that with difficult, intellectual projects and busy student schedules, not everyone completes the competition. We need to keep them motivated and on track. So we have expanded our list of professionals who volunteer time to communicate electronically with students via the SMART Competition website. The IEEE Powering and Energy Society has provided experts and information about power systems and smart grids to the program.

But we can always use more people to mentor students or provide subject matter expertise, design support or project guidance to help strengthen student success with this competition.

What types of design solutions have the students pursued with their projects?

The students have come up with some very interesting designs and applications. They have conducted thorough research and carefully considered the economics and return-on-investment for their design decisions. Many have used resources from IEEE society websites and IEEE Spectrum to develop the core of their ideas. We hoped that would happen when we created the program and are very pleased that they’re engaging with IEEE.

We can see that student responses to the challenge are influenced by where they live. One rural team configured their gymnasium to consider the predominant wind direction and then used the wind characteristics and a window system they created to help ventilate the facility. Another rural team used small, portable water power generation systems to supply power to the gymnasium and provide surplus power to the grid. Schools in urban areas and schools from overseas have been more concerned with building materials. One urban team selected building wall materials based on heat gain or heat loss characteristics and they designed their rooftop with reflective materials to help reduce the building’s cooling demand.

Overall, the applications have been quite varied, revealing a broad interest in technology options. The student projects have dealt with wearable and implantable devices, cloud computing, energy monitoring tools, building safety systems, sustainable paints and wire coatings, and aerospace technologies.

Many IEEE members are concerned about the need to attract more young people to smart grid careers and STEM careers in general. What have you’ve learned from this program about helping students succeed in technology disciplines?

We not only need to look for ways to excite high school students about smart grid and STEM careers, we also need to provide them with very clear guidance to help them succeed.

One challenge we have with SMART Competition is that it is based on software. Most students’ exposure to software is limited to games or applications they’ve downloaded on their phones or mobile computing devices. Consumer software is so intuitive students don’t need any skills or training in order to use it.

This is not the case when students are using professional infrastructure modeling and energy simulation tools like the software programs we provide for the SMART Competition. The students need to invest time reading the manual and learning how to use the software programs to successfully meet the competition deliverables.

We’ve realized, as well, that we need to help the students understand the problem-solving process and the importance of proceeding methodically through an entire process. And we also found out that they need very prescriptive competition rules and instructions. Students and teachers are looking for this type of detailed guidance.

How can IEEE members or societies support or promote this competition?

The IEEE Power & Energy Society and the IEEE Smart Grid Committee have been active participants, providing volunteers and informational resources. But many more groups with IEEE could find a role. About half of the 37 different societies at IEEE are relevant to the SMART competition. By getting involved and engaging with high school students, IEEE members and entities can help lead more young people into IEEE disciplines and attract more attention to IEEE.

We know from IEEE member surveys that many of our members want to be involved with STEM education. I believe that the SMART Competition is an ideal venue for leveraging our globally dispersed membership to serve the very important high school audience. I encourage IEEE societies to use their various resources, such as newsletters, notes to members, or other communications vehicles, to promote participation in the competition.

Is the SMART Competition giving you any particular insight into how young people think about engineering projects? What can the industry learn from this?

One lesson I’ve learned from this is that we must be willing to think outside the box. As adults we get locked into doing things according to our favored routines or previous practices, and this can be limiting in the long run. We have this tendency to stifle our more imaginative and open-minded instincts and as a result we are less creative.

Kids are not locked into as many fixed behaviors or thought processes. It is easier for them to change their thinking based on a new experience or exposure to a new idea. They can become creative and consider things that you and I might not think of. For those of us who are older IEEE members, we must remind ourselves that it is OK to try an unconventional approach or a technique that hasn’t been tested. Some novel approaches might not work out, but others might lead to true breakthroughs.

Mike Andrews is managing partner of Andrews & Associates, an engineering firm based in Phoenix, Arizona that provides continuity of operations, emergency planning, business consulting and other services to corporations and public agencies. In addition to his volunteer work to help create and support the SMART Competition, he has served as the Arizona regional coordinator for the National Engineers Week Future City Competition.