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Stony Brook Engages Energy Professionals of the Future

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Floyd cewit
Students from William Floyd High School’s Career and Technical Education program visited the energy labs at AERTC and had a hands-on robotics and virtual reality experience at CEWIT.

To help provide a glimpse of higher education and the job market that awaits them, Stony Brook University is reaching out to college-bound high schoolers through an innovative outreach program in an effort to highlight the opportunities expected to exist in the energy workforce in the coming years.

The program grew from an initiative designed to provide local high school teachers the fundamentals of offshore wind technology.

“One of the teachers said, ‘I think my students would be really interested in this. Can we bring them to Stony Brook to see the R&D Park?,” said Derek O’Connor, workforce development manager in the Office of Economic Development at Stony Brook University.

O’Connor did exactly that, beginning the program in March 2023.

“Since then, we’ve done one school every month during the high school year,” he said. “We’ve had seven different tours come in. As an offshoot of that, we’ve also engaged high schools to come not just to see the R&D Park, but to work with us on specific programs.”

In early February, Stony Brook’s Center for Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology (CEWIT) ran its first ever high school hackathon.

“We modified our long-running college hackathon for high schools that have computer science and coding and robotics clubs,” said O’Connor. “We hosted a day-long event that showed them some of the pathways they can embark upon if they were to either come to Stony Brook or continue in our ecosystem of education partners.”

O’Connor said the effort represents an investment on several fronts.

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A high school hackathon in February, the first of its kind at Stony Brook, attracted 70 students from six different high schools.

“Number one, there’s a community engagement aspect,” he said. “These are Long Island students who were not aware that Stony Brook had programs like this in their own backyard. We’ve had several students go through the labs and say, ‘I didn’t even know this was here. I didn’t know this building was here. I didn’t know I could do this here.’ We match students showing an interest with researchers and alumni who can tell them more about degrees and Stony Brook. For example, the battery technology lab has master’s students and postdocs, many of whom are alumni and can talk about their degree pathway at Stony Brook. This awareness and community engagement aspect is a big part of our work with prioritizing populations.”

O’Connor also acknowledges the importance of marketing and branding.

“Every student who came to the high school hackathon walked out with Stony Brook swag, thanks to Rick Gatteau [vice president for Student Affairs],” he said. “They were all given T-shirts and pens and bags and socks. Spreading that awareness and branding to students who will one day be looking for a college is a value to Stony Brook.”

There’s also the experiential learning aspect.

“It’s not just about degrees, we’re trying to prepare the next generation of workforce, not just on Long Island but in New York,” he said. “We have worker retention remits from our funder, the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR). We want to retain workers here in New York. If Stony Brook as a NYS institution can provide that training through workforce development programs, that is impactful.”

In partnership with the New York Power Authority’s Environmental Justice Office, the 140 trade electrical students from Eastern Suffolk BOCES are visiting SBU on a rotational basis to learn high-voltage direct current transmission and home energy integration. The students, on track to become trade electricians, spend time on campus and at the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (AERTC) with faculty and graduate students, in order to learn how increased electrification from renewable sources will change their work while providing awareness to a utility career pathway.

O’Connor said students with a diverse mix of aptitudes and backgrounds are showing interest, from students in trades who want to get hands-on experience to AP research students who want to see virtual reality models and understand analytics better. An interesting common thread has emerged.

Dubai reality deck
Visitors experienced Dubai virtually via CEWIT’s Virtual Reality Deck.

“The unifying factor is the video game-type technology that they’re able to use in their work,” he said. “When they come to CEWIT and stand inside the Virtual Reality Deck, they’re mesmerized. They’re saying ‘I can do this every day. I can program something and simulate it and see the Milky Way and see the inside of how a spaceship is designed.’ And that’s what you get when you get virtual reality training. The same thing with drones. The same thing with AI. One of our partners, a Stony Brook incubator company called Sunrise Technology, uses AI to program robotic cars that are then guided by video game controllers and cell phone technology. That’s what these kids are really interested in, not just doing, but seeing that they can do this as a job. And they get excited about that.”

O’Connor is also thankful for the support the program has gotten on campus.

“I think we at R&D Park sometimes get a little disconnected from West Campus, but this has been a really good linkage,” he said. “We’ve had great support from Judith Brown Clark [vice president for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer] and her office in developing Summer Youth Employment Programs for underserved school districts, as well as from Heather Banoub [assistant vice president of Community Relations].”

For now, O’Connor is aiming to leverage the momentum he’s built over the past year with an eye toward possibly reaching out to even younger students.

“We welcome any school visiting and we’ll keep having them come on a rotational basis once a month as long as the labs are able to have them,” he said. “We haven’t had elementary or middle schools do a tour yet but we’re not ruling out the possibility of doing that. Anyone is welcome to come to Stony Brook and have a technology and energy experience.”

— Robert Emproto

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