The Liberal Arts at Work

Middlebury College students win entry into the 2011 Solar Decathlon competition.

Talk about institutional pride! In what might be an even greater long shot than the Butler Bulldogs making it to the championship game of this year’s fabulous NCAA D-I basketball tournament, a team of more than 55 Middlebury undergraduates won entry into the Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon competition.

The Department of Energy Web site describes the Solar Decathlon in the following way:

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are affordable, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends cost-effectiveness, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

The first Solar Decathlon was held in 2002; the competition has since occurred biennially in 2005, 2007, and 2009. The next event will take place in fall 2011. Open to the public free of charge, the event takes place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Visitors can tour the houses and learn how energy-saving features can help them save money today.

It states that the Solar Decathlon:

  • educates student participants and the public about the many cost-saving opportunities presented by clean-energy products;
  • demonstrates to the public the opportunities presented by affordable homes that combine energy-efficient construction and appliances with renewable-energy systems that are available today; and
  • provides student participants with unique training to help fill jobs in our nation’s clean-energy economy.

And it notes that since 2002, the Solar Decathlon has

  • involved 72 university-led teams, which pursued multidisciplinary course curricula to study the requirements for designing and building energy-efficient, solar-powered houses;
  • established a worldwide reputation as a successful educational program and workforce-development opportunity for thousands of students;
  • affected the lives of 12,000 university participants; and
  • expanded its outreach to K–12 students by inviting Washington, D.C.-area schools to visit on class tours.

What began with a question from my wife Jessica in June 2009 has now become an institutional point of pride for all of us: “Can we assemble a team from Middlebury to compete in the Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon? It would be perfect for Middlebury students.” I couldn’t even answer Jessica’s question when asked because I had never heard of the Solar Decathlon.

But it didn’t take long for both of us to realize that, with a bit of spirited support from the President’s Office, this was a great opportunity for our students to combine best practices in leadership, innovation, science, and environmental sustainability in pursuit of an ambitious, but not insurmountable, goal. We were convinced that our students would undoubtedly rise to the challenge of defying the odds—defying the odds to compete successfully with institutions that have undergraduate programs and professional schools in architecture, engineering, and landscape design, and that are 10 and even 20 times our size. It was a challenge that would test our profoundly held conviction that a liberal arts education prepares students to be distinctly well suited to tackle complex problems by teaching them the art of asking questions and the skill of finding answers through critical analysis, clear communications, and breadth of study.

Perhaps most remarkable about the selection of Middlebury as one of the 20 finalists is the degree to which the College’s team of students had to create and assemble the requisite talent to complete its proposal to the Department of Energy. The two-step proposal that won a spot in the competition required a depth of knowledge in disciplines and professions not readily available, or available in any structured way, on our campus. As a result, the team, led by Addison Godine ’11, needed to identify and then gain the participation of experts from outside the College to help guide the team through the rigorous application process.

Faculty from our physics department and pre-architecture program, along with practicing architects, engineers, and energy specialists from throughout Vermont—all of whom were experts in solar power, green architecture, or efficient energy systems—worked closely with our students for eight months, helping them conceive of a design for their house, mapping out all the interrelated pieces, and working through the architectural, mathematical, and modeling functions necessary to complete their proposal. Special courses were mounted in winter term and during the (current) spring semester, team-taught by visiting faculty, which were crucial to the students’ successful scaling of a steep learning curve across several disciplines.

The visiting faculty who taught these special courses went toe-to-toe with the students in terms of their excitement over, and dedication to, the project. The solar-house design entered by the Middlebury team combined 21st-century technology, replete with environmentally sensitive heating, cooling, water, and waste systems, with the vernacular of the traditional Vermont farmhouse.

The creativity, persistence, leadership, and organizational talent exhibited by the students was remarkable, and the positive, can-do optimism that one couldn’t help but notice throughout the eight-month precompetition phase reflected an idealism and confidence that is rarely so evident in college students.

One more aspect of the Solar Decathlon competition that is worth mentioning is the way in which the students on the team ensured the success of such a large group working toward a common goal. Addison and his fellow student leaders figured out:
(1) how to create a student organization that was fluid enough to enable new students to move into support positions throughout the long proposal phase of the project; (2) how to enable students to cycle in and out as their schedules allowed (including studying abroad); (3) how to integrate learning outside the classroom with classroom work done by students formally enrolled in the courses that were offered specifically for this initiative; and (4) how to make this everyone’s project, with no individual ego overshadowing the efforts of the entire group. Many of us in positions of leadership here and elsewhere could learn a lot from how these students went about their work.

Now that the Middlebury Solar Decathlon team has won a place in the international competition, the actual design and building of its house begins.

The College’s Web site will provide updates on the team’s progress, and the team will have an active Web site up and running soon. For more information about the Solar Decathlon, please visit its official Web site.

More of Ron Liebowitz’s writing on College issues can be found on his blog Ron on Middlebury

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  1. […] competition to build a house for display on the National Mall in Washington D.C. It’s a big deal, but the hustle-bustle of spring semester meant that even the good news was simply swept away with […]

  2. […] can read President Liebowitz’s full column here. ← Solar Decathlon Featured in Middlebury Campus’ ‘Green’ […]

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