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Students charged up about SEI class

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Photo by Tamie Meck From left, high school students Jeramiah Hillman, Noah Haswell, Austin Katzer and Dominic Harman practice wiring array configurations on solar panels during a photovoltaic class, PVOL101, at Solar Energy International. Students who pas

Tim Helmer is quick to explain how a microinverter converts energy generated by a solar panel from DC power to AC. And he does it in a way that makes it sound so simple.

"It's pretty simple," says Helmer, a junior at Paonia High School.

Solar Energy International has partnered with the Delta County School District to administer an introductory course in photovoltaic energy. Called PVOL101, Helmer is one of 13 Paonia High School and alternative school students enrolled in the course. Upon passing the course, students receive a high school-level certificate of completion from SEI.

PHS principal Randal Palmer said the pilot program is thus far going very well. He calls the relationship with SEI "serendipitous."

There are no prerequisites, other than students must be either juniors or seniors, said Pete Mueller, an AmericaCorps VISTA volunteer at SEI. Mueller, who is involved with SEI in community revitalization programs through economic development, got his start in the solar energy industry in 1999 as an SEI student.

The course teaches skills that can be applied to college, the military, mechanical and electronic engineering and other fields. "Many graduates have gone on to be entry-level installers," said Mueller.

Course topics range from the basics of electricity through designing and building a PV system, and ultimately how to safely commission a system, said Mueller. Students learn how to perform power and energy calculations, evaluate utility bills and rate plans, design a residential grid-direct system and more.

Helmer, a junior at Paonia High School, said his dad was an electrician and he knew some of the basics of electricity heading into the class. "It's kind of rubbed off on me," said Helmer, who enrolled in the course after hearing an SEI school presentation last spring. "I thought it'd be a good opportunity to get out and do some hands-on training, and it'd be kind of cool to get my solar energy installer certification."

Helmer said the class fits well with other class curriculum and scheduling and students are moving quickly through the lessons. So far, "it's going pretty good." He is one of many students enrolled in Advanced Placement college preparatory classes and planning to attend college, although he hasn't chosen a career path. Taking the SEI course could influence his career decisions later on. "I'm just trying it out," he said. "If I could get a good job in this, I may well do this for a while."

While PV is normally a six-week course, curriculum has been adapted to meet the high school semester timeline. Students commit to 60 hours of online classroom textbook studies and 30 hours of hands-on training at the SEI campus located on Mathews Lane. Each chapter includes a video and an online quiz, which is graded.

The educational disciplines of STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, are all taught within the class, said Mueller. Completion of the course can give students an edge in the job market, in large part because the SEI name, which is highly respected in the field of alternative energy, is on the certificate, and in part because the solar energy industry is growing "in a huge, huge, huge way," said Mueller.

SEI was founded as a non-profit educational organization in 1991 and has taught classes to more than 35,000 individuals. Its Solar in the Schools outreach program reaches more than 2,000 students annually through hands-on classroom presentations.

"SEI seeks to provide students a new avenue in an emerging industry," said Mueller, and PV systems are the most common systems used in solar energy production today. The PVOL101 course, SEI's most popular course, provides a gateway to a career in solar energy and is offered on-campus and online.

Senior Warren Minerich comes from a coal mining family and plans to study mining engineering. Minerich said he intends to use the certificate to apply for jobs to help pay his way through college, but also sees the class as something that can be applied to his area of study.

So far, said Mueller, all of the students are passing. While there is no final exam per se, the final project, dependent on weather, will be to build and install a grid-tied system at PHS which can be used for future training and education. The project hinges on a pending grant.

Mueller said SEI will offer the course at Delta High School in the coming semester.

Helmer said he would recommend the course to any student, regardless of their career goals or interests. "It's a good time," he said. "It's not high-stress, by any means, but it's not a coaster class."

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