The Catholic University of America

Feb. 16, 2010

CUA Students Get Hands-on Experience to Learn About Solar Energy

  Scott Mathews, associate professor of electrical engineering (left), and Brian Alexander, director of energy and utilities management, announce a fun way for students to get hands-on experience with alternative energy.

Catholic University students will look to the heavens for inspiration as they compete in a new solar-design challenge that began this week.

The competition challenges teams of students to design a picnic table capable of using energy from the sun to create a power source. About 100 students, faculty and alternative-energy professionals attended a kick-off event on Monday, Feb. 15, during which competition rules were announced and advisers introduced.

A multidepartment initiative, the competition follows the installation late last year of a 1,088-panel solar-energy system on the rooftops of four CUA buildings. “CUA’s solar-energy system is producing power, so now it’s time for our students to learn more about solar energy,” says Brian Alexander, director of energy and utilities management.

It is hoped that one solar picnic table will be produced from the winning design and placed in front of the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center by the fall.

The competition is sponsored by the School of Architecture and Planning, the School of Engineering, and the Department of Facilities Maintenance and Operations. It is open to all CUA undergraduate and graduate students.

“Although we think engineers and architects may be more likely to participate, we want this to be a learning opportunity for students in nontechnical majors,” says Scott Mathews, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science who is one of the competition’s organizers.

The goal is to design a functional picnic table capable of supplying and storing power generated by solar panels. The resulting electricity could be used by students and others sitting at the table to power or recharge electronics such as laptops and iPods.

“This project should be a fun, competitive, and possibly financially rewarding way for our students to gain practical hands-on experience dealing with energy resources, a problem much in the public debate nowadays and which will likely remain as a significant problem for their children and grandchildren,” says J. Steven Brown, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

While engineering and architecture majors are likely to participate, the competition is open to all students. About 100 people attended a kick-off event.

With the assistance of CUA’s Green Club, interested students will form teams of between three and seven members to compete. “The competition gives students the opportunity to learn about alternative energy and the mechanics of a photovoltaic system,” says Maggie Comstock, a senior and president of the Green Club, a student organization that promotes sustainability and environmental awareness on campus.

Executives from Washington Gas Energy Services and Standard Solar Inc., CUA’s corporate partners in the solar-energy system, and engineering and architecture faculty have agreed to serve as advisers to the teams.

Student designs will be judged on functionality, innovation, safety, aesthetics, architecture, marketability and teamwork by a panel of faculty, staff and energy-industry professionals.

“The solar-design competition is important for our students because it replicates a real-life situation where designers learn about negotiating their design intentions with their multidisciplinary team members and then practice how to communicate their ideas to win a commission from a client. Good designers need to be able to communicate in many ways,” says Chris Grech, associate professor of architecture and planning and director of the Master of Science in Sustainable Design Program.

The winning team — to be announced on April 22, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day — will receive $3,000, provided by the schools of architecture and planning and engineering and Washington Gas Energy Services, owner and operator of CUA’s solar-energy system. An April 22 ceremony will include presentations by all teams.