Sunday, May 9, 2010

Graduation: First Sustech student ever: Heidi!

Graduation was yesterday. And crossing the stage for the first time ever was a Unity College Sustainability Design and Technology Major, Heidi Kowalski.

Heidi came to us with quite a bit of college already, but was looking to reorganize her life around work in the renewable energy and energy efficiency business. Reversing the normal time logic of part-time college, she held down her existing job as a hospital technician on the weekends and commuted to us during the week in term time. This ability for hard work was particularly apparent when she effectively served two internships, one formal, graded internship as an office person for ReVision Energy, our local installation-and-analysis firm, the other helping to build an experimental green residence in the Unity neighborhood.

As someone who also had to hold down a job, or two, to get through college, and who was also an older student, I appreciated this capacity for work in her a good deal, and was quite proud to see Heidi cross the stage. Heidi is competent, practical, analytical, hard-working, very down-to-earth and sensible, and will be a tremendous asset to the company who employs her as an analyst, manager or businessperson.

Of course, she might also just choose to hang up a shingle as an independent energy consultant or auditor.

Also graduating today were Steve Swartz and Mary Kinney. Steve is not a Sustech major -- I guess he discovered his calling too late in his college career to take all our program. But he took a good number of our classes and this combined with his previous college work will be enough to make it quite likely he'll find work in the field.

Enough work, and well-enough paid, I would imagine, for him to decide if he likes it enough to go to graduate school in something closer to Sustech. Steve is also hard-working, and a good self-starter. He quickly picked up the Q-GIS platform after I gave him the briefest of introductions one day. Instead of taking a GIS class like most students would, he learned how to do it himself. This kind of self-starting smarts is one reason I predict he'll have to go to grad school one day. Steve is definitely an outdoorsman first and foremost, a good trait in the wind power field, where a head for heights and an ability to read maps and use GPS and GIS also come in handy. Steve is the mustachioed dude in the blue hard hat.

Mary took only one or two of our classes, and that I think for fun and for breadth more than for a career path. But she was a great asset to the recent Energy and Energy Efficiency class and swung in with gusto on all kinds of hands-on projects. Here she is, unauthorized, climbing on the table to get better purchase on her Philips screwdriver while experimenting with solar module set-up. Full disclosure -- I did tell her to get down off the table as soon as I had the picture. And note that everyone in these pictures is wearing appropriate PPE. Up above Mary and Heidi are fielding the guy wires as we take down the Vinalhaven anemometer preparatory to moving it to a different site a few weeks ago.

So all's well that ends well for these guys. Off into the wild blue yonder.

What about us that stay behind? Well, a bit of a rest, and a change that is as good as a rest, is in order. I have to get organized for my field season and I'm picking away at that job daily.

But I can't help but ask how well a job we did with these undergraduates. We meaning Unity College, that is, and particularly the Center for Global Change and Sustainability and the Sustainability Design and Technology Program. Was it worth it, for these students?

I have to say I'm not too unhappy with the results. Particularly with Heidi, who was able to finish her degree in just two years because she transferred in so many credits. Ordinarily, you just don't get this kind of service. Trying to cobble together a custom degree completion program, while adding in as many hands-on and practical, in-the-field, experiences as we could muster in the time available, while maintaining quality in the regular programming, that's not normal for the rather hide-bound education system we have in this country.

But that's just part of the question. More and more I have to ask, how well do we do preparing students for the problems society must solve tomorrow? Especially in energy and climate change?

Unity College is not a professional preparation college. We're a liberal arts and sciences college. This means that although we might have specialized classes in applied physics and energy analysis and climate mitigation and ecological econometrics, it isn't our business to be trying to make engineers, business managers, and accountants.

What we should be able to make instead are well-rounded, creative, boot-strapping, open-minded problem solvers, general-purpose leaders for society, who will help remake civilization anew, each generation.

As a professor-practitioner in the world of energy and climate mitigation, I can keep my eyes glued to the pages of the New York Times or Science or Nature, as much as I want, and I do, but the best I can do about figuring out what problems tomorrow's leaders must solve is take a WAG, a wild-a*&@d guess. I can imagine that climate change is going to be a problem, and that energy will need to come primarily from the sun or things that are driven by the sun, like the wind.

But what if there are problems I can't foresee? And if my life has taught me anything, it's that I can't foresee that well and neither can anybody else, especially the people who are stupid enough to think that they're in charge.

For my first career, I was trained to fight the Cold War. My job, as an enlisted man and engineer in the Royal Air Force, was to put airplanes into the air, and keep them there, gassed-up, oiled up, and armed-up, to knock down nuclear bomb and cruise missile-carrying enemy aircraft that were expected to approach over the North Sea from the former Soviet Union. While they were up in the air, I was to keep my head down in the trenches and bunkers, fend off saboteurs and fellow travelers with my trusty 7.62 mm rifle, and generally try to stay alive while World War III went on all around me.

Only problem was, the enemy that actually attacked poor old Albion during this period came from the air and sea from Buenos Aires, not Moscow. And of course they didn't actually attack us anywhere our poor old aging Phantoms or even our 7.62 SLRs could get at them. And their even more decrepit aircraft didn't carry nukes, but instead the Exocet missile. And so instead of Tupulev bombers, it was Mirages and even aging Corsairs, and instead of Soviet nukes it was a stupid two-bit French rocket with half a brain that took out all those men on the bridge of HMS Sheffield. And so it took a small miracle of improvisation and muddling through and 280 British lives and over a 1,000 Argentinian ones, to make it so the Falkland Islanders could stay what they wanted to stay, and still do, which is British.

And then there was the PIRA. The Provisional IRA. Using money collected from Irish-American suckers in bars in Boston and New York, money supposed to go to orphans and widows, instead we had bombs in Birmingham pubs and the RAF barracks just down the road from mine. More widows and orphans. I can be forgiven, I think, for taking this personally. These bombers were actually trying to kill people like me, after all, if not me personally.

But that's not the point. The point is, we didn't see it coming. In either case. And so none of our defense thinking was any good. And so we had to protect civilization by reorganizing our thinking from the ground up. The specialists were at a loss, as they always are.

And they were so grand, with their gold braid and tailored uniforms from fine London tailors. How long it took me to realize that the tailored uniforms were the Emperor's clothes.

And who the heck was thinking back then that the real threat to civilization might not be the junta or the PIRA or the Sovs, but instead an otherwise harmless and even helpful oxide of carbon?

If you had told me back than that by 2010 I'd be a computer-bashing, carbon-counting energy analyst keeping a farm and teaching sustainability college in Maine, I would have laughed you out of the crew room. And how useful is it to know how to change the recuperator on an F4, or how to deep strip the engines on the JP3s and 5s and Bulldogs that trained the pilots that flew the F4, as well as the Harriers and Sea Kings that turned out to be a bit more helpful in the South Atlantic? Not very much use at all.

But, funnily enough, it does help a good deal knowing how to parse a sentence in English, how to apply an equation, how to structure a logic problem, understanding some college level physics and engineering, and so on. Things I did learn at RAF College Halton in 1978.

(It doesn't hurt knowing a Number 3 Phillips from a Number 2, for that matter. I use that kind of technical knowledge almost every day, too.)

So, given the prior performance of the folks who were in charge of me back then, I have every reason to believe that I will be just as incompetent at predicting the future. In which case these students are going to need what I didn't get enough of as a youngster, which is an education that can be organized and reorganized, used and reused, to solve problems we won't and perhaps can't possibly see coming.

If I just taught them to do one kind of analysis, that wouldn't be good enough. They have to know how to bootstrap themselves into new, completely unforeseen analysis problems. They can't just learn one kind of writing, one kind of public speaking, one kind of research.

Most of all, they have to have a high regard for human freedom and for service to society. They have to be willing to think hard about what kind of society they want to live in and be willing to work and sacrifice to see that happen.

I can't foresee the future, but I can guess that climate and energy problems are not going to make the plotters and bomb-throwers and all the kinds of -isms there are go away. More than likely, they'll get worse, as more and more poor people are pushed to the wall.

And if we're not careful and true to this liberal education ideal, we'll get worse as a result, giving up on our own ideals and freedoms too easily. We might even hand our values over to some new American junta, run from the boardrooms of Exxon or Haliburton or Massey.

Saving the world for fossil fuels.

I don't think the likes of Steve and Mary and Heidi are going to let that happen too easily on their watch.


Clayton Kern said...

Congratulations Mick on your first Sustech graduate! Great analysis on the purpose of Unity. My goal in life has always been to be well rounded and have experience in as many fields as possible, and to be able to take care of myself and be as independent as possible. Unity while not at the cutting edge of many things definitely produces exactly what I came for and what you speak of, well rounded problem solving graduates. Here's to knowledge!!

Mick said...

Thanks Clay. And thanks for testing out the new comment moderation.