This Is How They Did It

Back at the house, Godine is preparing for the final hours of measured contests. A wall of clouds has lurked in the western sky all afternoon and is finally rolling over the Mall. The iPad shows that the meter is still 7.8 kilowatt-hours short of net-zero. The array can produce up to 6.8 kilowatts under sunny skies, but far less under cloud cover. The sun will set at 6:53 p.m.

It would be a cliché to say that every minute counts, except in this case, it happens to be true.


Solar Decathlon WashingtonOctober 1, 2011
The first thing that I hear when I arrive in the morning is the dejected-sounding statement: “Seventy-two minutes.” Just another two hours of sun and Self-Reliance could have finished the week net-zero. As it turns out, only seven teams do, and Middlebury loses 17 points, dropping below Ohio State and California. The setback seems capricious and unfair, cosmically so. A top-five finish is now, if not impossible, then implausible. The team’s mood is buoyed by the fact that it’s the busiest visitor day of the competition, and there’s simply no time to mope. Alumni, parents, and students pack the house. The College chartered a fan bus from Middlebury, which arrived late last night, bringing with it an estimable cheering section.

Later that afternoon, at a College reception, President Liebowitz lifts his glass to the team and the valuable skills they’ve learned in two years of working together, including “ego containment” and collaboration.

Nelson takes the podium and articulates what Liebowitz and others at Middlebury have been saying for several years. “This is really going to change the way we educate at Middlebury. A group came along and said, ‘Hey, we need to do things differently. We’re looking at the future, and the skills we’re learning and the ways we interact with professors . . . We need a little bit more hands-on.’”

Professor Noah Graham, who worked at a software start-up before turning to academia, later echoed this assessment. “If a student wants to just study physics, go on to grad school, and become a physicist, that’s absolutely great—but there are a lot more permutations of how career paths are going to go.”

In the old-school model, he said, BAs would pick an occupation, start at the bottom, work their way up, and retire with a pension. “The new world, for better or worse, doesn’t work that way. That’s an important thing that we, as faculty, need to be conscious of, in terms of how we organize our curricula and what kind of experiences we provide for students.”

Jenks-Jay, too, shared this view with me. “This is a new adventure into liberal education that’s inclusive of applied learning. It’s constructed on the foundation of liberal arts, as opposed to being in addition to or outside of. I think Self-Reliance is a symbol of things to come.”

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