ERC Introduces Incoming Freshmen to Research and Engineering Aspects of Solar Power

Achievement date: 

The NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST), which is headquartered at Arizona State University, helped introduce five Native American, four Hispanic, and three other incoming University of New Mexico (UNM) freshmen to the research and engineering aspects of solar power while also easing the often-difficult transition to college life. The venue was a week-long, free, residential QESST Freshmen Engineering Research Experience at UNM.


Through hands-on activities (see accompanying figure), the dozen students learned about solar technologies and engineering research. Seven indicated that their participation in the program helped convince them to pursue studies in solar energy technologies. One participant reported: “One of my goals when coming to college was to go back to the reservation and help make life better for the people there who still live ‘off the grid.’ Coming to the program helped me learn about all the new technologies that are being invented, that I could actually be able to work on in the future.” 


Eighteen thousand New Mexicans (and 1.4 billion people worldwide) live without access to electricity. The lack of light at night impedes families’ economic prosperity and can threaten their safety. Solar energy provides a compelling context for attracting students to study engineering—especially Native Americans, who account for most of the “off-the-grid” households in New Mexico.

The incoming freshmen soldered and tested solar panels and “solar bugs”; designed, constructed, and raced solar cars; and learned about QESST research and other energy-related technologies from UNM QESST students, faculty, and staff plus staff of the New Mexico Solar Energy Association. Students visited a cleanroom and explored the nooks and crannies of the UNM mechanical engineering building’s extensive solar thermal facility.