EMS students tour Iceland’s renewable energy facilities

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Picturesque Iceland, the least populated nation in Europe, is home to glaciers, volcanoes and a unique ability to harness the renewable energy that lies beneath the Earth’s surface.

It’s also a place for Penn State students to see classroom lessons and their career ambitions brought to life.

This summer, with the help of a scholarship from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS), EMS students toured the country as part of the Global Renewable Energy Education Network, or GREEN, program’s Iceland trip. There, students spent 10 days in unique classroom settings at Reykjavik University’s School of Science and Engineering, paired with adventure trips to tour the renewable energy facilities that produce 99 percent of Iceland’s energy needs.

“Students really get inside knowledge of those facilities. They get in-depth, personalized tours from the heads of those facilities,” said Stacy Davidson, academic adviser in EMS. “Iceland wants everyone to see what they’re doing.”

Going GREEN

Born in 2009 in a Rutgers dorm room, the program was hatched as a way to shake up traditional learning by tackling topics relevant to life using hands-on learning, said Adam Phoebe, 2012 Penn State energy engineering alum and director of global operations for the GREEN program.

Phoebe, whose job is to create and continue programs that offer services to the community while addressing the United Nations’ 17 goals for sustainable development, said the programs give students, particularly in STEM fields, more meaning and passion behind what they’re learning. That leads to more enthusiastic learning, and more civically minded students, he said.

Throughout the year, the program brings students from about a dozen schools to Iceland, Peru and Philadelphia. It’s a chance to study abroad without committing an entire semester. Each trip is built around the region’s unique problems and solutions. For example, Iceland — with scant fossil fuels — shows how it taps into its geothermal resources. Peru focuses on water resource management practices, while Philadelphia offers lessons on sustainable design and urban revitalization. Until recently, the EMS scholarship was only available for Iceland’s summer trip, but Davidson said the college is expanding it to include Peru.

Education, adventure abroad

Jennafer Hakun, a junior majoring in energy engineering, said the GREEN capstone project, where participants brainstorm, develop and create a plan of action for a sustainable idea, really showed how complex it is to develop and implement a concept. Her group sought to bring affordable, renewable energy to places such as Brazil using students from the country’s universities. Educators again and again challenged the students, pointing out flaws and improving the plans.

“At the end we had a pretty cohesive project,” said Hakun. “It made me look at things more broadly. It showed me that it’s not one simple solution. You have to think about a lot of variables when you’re solving a problem.”

Outside the classroom, they toured the island with two Icelandic guides — one for adventure, another for history — learning about sustainability and culture.

Adventure trips, designed to teach about the country’s geological features, included stops at geothermal hot springs, hikes to volcanoes and waterfalls, and snorkeling excursions in between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Peter Ryan, a junior majoring in geography, said his major is built on experiencing unfamiliar places. That’s what drew him to Iceland.

As a child, he received an atlas as a gift and has since then combed the globe in search of adventure. He’s visited Spain, Germany, France, Ireland, all of the United Kingdom and remote parts of eastern Canada. Nothing, however, could prepare him for what he saw in Iceland.

“I’ve gone on plenty of hikes and grown up in a rural area, but the glacier is an experience that’s so far from my usual walks of life and was definitely the most meaningful,” said Ryan.

It’s increased his desire to keep traveling and exploring the effects of climate change in areas that are most vulnerable. He’s interested in how the effects could alter the availability of natural resources, leading to political conflict and war. He’s hoping the trip will lead to an internship that will put him closer to his goal of working for the United States Agency for International Development or the United Nations.

Lucas Tufano, a junior majoring in environmental systems engineering, got to see his career goals brought to life while in Iceland. He’s passionate about applying what he’s learning at Penn State to mitigating the effects of industrialization and climate change, and Iceland’s emphasis on balancing development with the environment gave a glimpse into his future.

“Experiences like that where you’re out of the classroom, seeing what you’ve learned, what you can learn, seeing it all applied to the world, it’s really a huge confidence boost, and you’re still able to learn so much,” said Tufano.

Tufano said some of the adventure trips, such as snorkeling between tectonic plates in one of the world’s clearest bodies of water, really took him out of his comfort zone. Others, like the view from a peak overlooking Thorsmork (Þórsmörk) National Park, left him speechless.

“We spent about five minutes just completely silent taking it all in,” Tufano said.

Making connections

Amanda Berta, a senior studying energy engineering, said names like Eyjafjallajokull (Iceland’s famous volcano) really stand out on a resume. Berta, a GREEN program ambassador, said she was asked about her trip during all four of her interviews before she landed a job at General Electric’s (GE) Renewable Energy Development Program, a two-year rotational program that combines coursework, hands-on training and cross-functional rotations so members can find how best to begin their renewable energy careers.

For her GREEN capstone project, Berta crafted a plan to use smartphones to help consumers save on power while also increasing grid efficiency. An app would send a push alerting consumers of ways to save on electricity during peak times. For example, it might tell consumers to lower their heat by one degree to receive power at a reduced rate.

“When you do that with a million homes, it’s a lot of electricity and most people can’t tell the difference between one degree,” said Berta.

GE is investing heavily in integrated electronic devices, and recruiters were eager to hear about Berta’s work.

As one of about 30 GREEN ambassadors, she’s happy to help link students to study abroad opportunities.

“I know that the program has been very successful in helping a lot of students get jobs and promote EMS,” said Berta.

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Last Updated December 07, 2016