Powering the Future Hydropower Workforce with STEM Education

Imagine taking just a few hours to build a small replica of a working hydropower dam that actually generates power. That’s one of the activities that high school students from Washington and Oregon performed at Chelan County Public Utility District and the Foundation for Water and Energy Education’s new Hydropower and STEM Career Academy.

The week-long academy at Chelan County PUD’s Rocky Reach Dam landed Chelan and FWEE a 2017 Outstanding Stewards of American’s Waters award for public education from the National Hydropower Association. The association awards public education programs that effectively communicate and promote the benefits of hydropower through mediums such as curriculum, learning centers, videos or outreach programs.

In addition to exploring the physics of producing and distributing hydropower, students conducted other hands-on activities with mechanical and electrical engineers, plant mechanics and operators, divers, linemen and fish biologists. The academy also brought in counselors, college advisors and mentors to identify the prerequisites and academic achievement needed to pursue hydropower careers.

The program is an important one — the energy industry anticipates losing thousands of craft and professional employees to retirements over the next five years. An estimated 17 percent of the current energy workforce is ready to retire. It is critical for the hydropower industry to understand how to address the overall impact this will have on current and future operational performance. What’s one solution? This academy, which is designed to help students explore jobs in hydropower and guide them in making a choice on a career in the field.

The academy employs STEM learning — science, technology, engineering and math — which uses inquiry-based problem solving processes. Students learn how to think and apply their skills across curriculum. But for building a hands-on curriculum specific to hydropower, there was no template. So the PUD and FWEE came up with their own. The Make Your Own Hydropower kit was particularly well received, said Randy Stearnes, community relations officer at Tacoma Public Utilities and board chair at FWEE.

“FWEE has several products that we provide to schools and science labs, this one is a model of a small dam that uses the force of moving water to turn lights on,” Stearnes said. “The kit is all hands-on and it’s a wonderful discovery time. The very first time I did this activity was in a college classroom in an engineering course — and these are high school students.”

Getting the students on the college level was all part of the plan. Students received college credit as a bonus following successful completion of the academy. College-level professionals and career counselors were also present to painted a detailed picture of the hydropower industry and career outlook as well is identify realistic goals to maximize opportunities to launch a career in a specific area. Business leaders talked with students to lend credibility to the message about job and career development strategies.

The program was not only successful enough to be planned for a second year, it spurred students to seek more experiences in hydropower. Katie Anderson, a school-to-work business liaison at Wenatchee High School, said 10 students requested to shadow workers at the PUD after a utility representative visited the school. And 22 students pre-registered for the next STEM Career Academy.

“I thought it would be interesting to see all the career paths and look at what I’d like to do in the future,” Zachary Vidrine, 16, of Moses Lake told the Wenatchee World newspaper.

Other students said they enjoyed talking to the engineers and felt connected with them, the machines were cool and they want to design them, and that they’d seriously consider a career in mechanical or electrical engineering.

“NHA is pleased to present Chelan County PUD and Foundation for Water and Energy Education with the OSAW Award for Public Education,” said Linda Church Ciocci, NHA’s Executive Director. “Chelan County PUD and FWEE are creating hydropower’s leaders of tomorrow. By developing a fun curriculum to engage students, the academy is ensuring hydropower will continue to provide clean, renewable energy for years to come.”

The academy is slated for another run this June.