Students gear up for sustainability now and in the future

By Suzanne WilliamsAugust 19, 2013

How do you harness the talents of environmentally minded undergraduate and graduate students and prepare them to tackle energy challenges at the local and regional level?

That is the challenge the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) faced when it tapped Argonne National Laboratory to develop and manage a workforce development program based on DOE’s highly successful EcoCAR program that Argonne developed and manages.

Working with Argonne, DOE’s Clean Cities program launched the Clean Cities University Workforce Development Program (CCUWDP) in 2010 to provide the automotive and energy sectors with skilled and knowledgeable talent to help shape the future of on-road transportation. The Clean Cities program advances the nation's economic, environmental and energy security through local actions to reduce petroleum use in transportation; it has reduced petroleum by over 5 billion gallons since it began in 1993. A national network of nearly 100 Clean Cities coalitions brings together stakeholders in the public and private sectors to deploy alternative and renewable fuels, idle-reduction measures, fuel economy improvements and emerging transportation technologies.

Argonne manages the ongoing operations of the CCUWDP program — selecting the students and offering educational development programs for career growth. The program began with 25 participants the first year and served more than 100 students in 2013. Nearly 70 of the 86 regional Clean Cities Coalitions have received an intern through the program and new locations join each semester. Many interns have gone on to work at their coalitions after graduation, or for one of the coalition’s stakeholders.

CCUWDP strives not only to educate students, but to provide a resource for Clean Cities coalitions as well. Many CCUWDP students have enabled coordinators to reach new goals by adding fresh skills and perspectives to the team.

“A lot of our success and growth has been due to our interns’ attention to reaching out to stakeholders,” said Carl Lisek, Coordinator for the South Shore Clean Cities Coalition in Illinois. “They’ve helped us achieve one of the biggest decreases in petroleum use in a U.S. Clean Cities Coalition region.”

Each student works with a specific Clean Cities coalition on a portfolio of projects to reduce petroleum use, such as outreach events; meetings with local stakeholders; and websites, marketing and public relations plans. Students have helped coalitions connect with local campuses, work with local fleet managers and plan local events such as the National Alternative Fuel Vehicle Odyssey Day. Last summer, CCUWDP students helped deploy Argonne’s IdleBox to entice fleet managers to adopt idle reduction campaigns in their organizations.

Jaime McKay, an intern for the Greater Washington Region Clean Cities Coalition, says the mix of real-life experience in alternative energy and advanced vehicle technologies, coupled with learning the skills needed to stand out in the growing alternative energy field, have made the internship an incredible experience for her.

“After a year in the program, I have strengthened my resume alongside the leaders of public- and private-sector energy efficiency and petroleum reduction programs,” McKay said. “I learned to handle myself professionally under pressure, and have emerged as an excellent candidate for future employment. All of this was made possible through the excellent structure and leadership of the CCUWDP.”

The CCUWDP is unique in the amount and quality of experience it provides to its students. Because of the grassroots nature of the coalitions, students are involved in their day-to-day operations. For example, Mark Rabinsky, project manager at the Ann Arbor/Detroit Clean Cities Coalition, worked with CCUDWP participant Joshua Rego on a variety of projects during two semesters.

“Josh has been an invaluable asset to the Detroit/Ann Arbor Clean Cities Coalition,” Rabinsky said. “The new service models he worked on were valuable for the organization, and his alternative fuel market studies provided stakeholders with compelling arguments for alternative fuel adoption. Developing a sustainable procurement toolkit for fleet managers also provided Josh with an opportunity to design, manage and implement a project from scratch.”

From Rego’s perspective, his work with the Detroit/Ann Arbor Clean Cities Coalition offered him an unparalleled experience.

“I had the freedom and support to develop, from scratch, business models that will place both coalitions on a firmer footing financially and increase operational sustainability. CCUWDP allowed me to develop skills I never knew I had, and taught me how to make sustainability a reality,” Rego said.

One unique way CCUWDP participants add value and leverage resources for DOE and the coalitions comes from partnering with EcoCAR teams on mutually beneficial initiatives and goals. CCUWDP students are designated points-of-contact for their EcoCAR 2 team members, and the teams and coalitions have partnered to host outreach events, participate in local meetings and connect with important stakeholders.

For more information on the Clean Cities University Workforce Development Program, visit the internship section on the Clean Cities website.