Like many students, Kyle Hughes (above right) entered college wanting to change
Hughes has been able to transform that vague desire into a career plan as an early graduate of an innovative Wright State University master’s degree program.
In December, Hughes received a Master of Science in Renewable and Clean Energy from Wright State’s College of Engineering and Computer Sciences. For his master’s thesis, he worked on a Department of Energy–funded research project to develop a software tool for designing geothermal heating and cooling systems.
“I want to live on this earth and do something positive. I feel like the best way to do that is in renewable and clean energy,” he said.
The Renewable and Clean Energy degree is the first of its kind in Ohio and one of approximately 10 nationwide. It offers an unusually broad palette of courses, thanks to a collaborative approach that includes other regional institutions.
Hughes, who hails from near Winchester in southeastern Ohio, said he chose Wright State for his undergraduate degree after visiting his sister on campus while she was enrolled in the university’s nursing program. “I liked the area, and the university was fairly well known for its engineering program,” he said.
Among the courses he took for his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering was one on solar energy taught by Jim Menart, Ph.D. (above left), professor of mechanical and materials engineering and director of the Renewable and Clean Energy program.
“I said, this is the kind of thing I want to do,” Hughes said. He signed up for a senior engineering project on geothermal energy that Menart advised, and Menart offered him a graduate assistantship for a geothermal research project. “I took it and it snowballed from there,” he said.
Menart said interest in the program has been strong since the university launched it in January 2009. Beginning with four students in its first year, the program’s enrollment grew to 11 in its second year and 26 in its third. The first few graduates of the two-year program have found positions in their fields or chosen to pursue doctoral degrees, Menart said.
Menart defines renewable energy as energy sources that are replenished as fast, or faster, than we use them, so that we never use them up. Solar energy is a good example. Clean energy refers to energy sources and technology that are more environmentally friendly than our current use of fossil fuels. A good example there is geothermal energy.
Menart said the Renewable and Clean Energy program is in response to a recognized need for solutions to America’s energy problems, especially its heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
“We wanted to focus on this issue and try to start driving two things in this area,” Menart said. “One was to drive the education, and that is to put out engineers to fulfill a demand that we saw and that we feel is going to grow in the future. Two was to drive research. We need to lower costs in renewable and clean energies. In order to do that, you need to get some research going.
“So, what better place to start than at the master’s level for a Renewable and Clean Energy program? At the master’s level, we’ve got the education aspect going on and the research aspect going on, whereas at the undergraduate level you would only get the education but not the research. I think we have hit the sweet spot.”
To create a program that would be robust from the start, Wright State conceived it as a collaborative effort with the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), Central State University, and the University of Dayton (UD). “We have 22 Renewable and Clean Energy courses, which is one of the largest selections across the country,” Menart said.
The collaborative approach takes advantage of each institution’s strengths. Wright State excels in computation, while AFIT offers a course on nuclear energy, Central State offers courses on clean coal technology and hydropower, and UD is strong in energy efficiency courses. Students at either Wright State or UD
can earn the degree, but they must take more than half of the courses at their
Menart said the Renewable and Clean Energy program appeals to the desire of young people to make a difference in the world. “We get a lot of people who are interested in the field, and that’s great. I love to see so much interest. A lot of students who come in the door have a passion for doing this. It’s not just, ‘I want a degree to get a job.’ They feel this is an important issue, as I do, and they’re pursuing it for that reason.”
The program produces more than graduates alone. For his master’s thesis, Hughes was a part of a research team that developed a software tool that engineers can use for research or to design geothermal energy systems for homes or commercial buildings. Funded by the Department of Energy, the tool will be available for anyone to use, Hughes said.
Raised in a hilly, rural area where energy choices are limited and many families heat their homes with propane, Hughes hopes to help make geothermal energy more widely available, saving money for households as well as reducing their dependence on a fossil fuel.
Menart said the outlook is bright for careers in Renewable and Clean Energy. “The industry is here, it’s large, and it will grow. Prices are coming down, and that’s what needs to happen. If you look at solar energy, in the last 20 years the price of solar energy has come down, and I still see price decreases happening,” Menart said. “I feel there will be a strong penetration of different renewable energies into our economy in the future.”