Universities in many parts of the world work quite closely with industry, and technology moves forward collaboratively. Unfortunately, that is not the norm here in the United States. Too many professors focus on turning out papers and graduating students, rather than turning out work-ready employees. In an era where professors are rewarded by bringing in research dollars, the output is too often ever more sophisticated numerical analyses and modeling that will never see the application light of day.
Part of the problem is that too many of our professors have little or no experience actually working in the industries they teach. When I was at Georgia Tech, I was always thrilled to study under a professor who had worked in the power industry. These professors could share why students should care about the materials in that specific class and how they might be applied. I feel sorry for professors who go straight from their Ph.D. dissertation to teach in the classroom. Imagine how hard it would be to prepare an engineering student to succeed in an environment where you have no firsthand knowledge.
I was sharing my frustrations with Terry Boston, CEO of PJM, who felt I might not be giving our universities a fair shake. He suggested that I should look to see if utilities were supporting their universities in a way that ultimately made a difference in the caliber of students. Boston suggested I take a trip to the University of Tennessee (UTC) in Chattanooga. Boston previously worked as an executive at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and shared how closely TVA personnel continues to work closely with UTC and work directly with the students themselves. He connected me up with the engineering dean at UTC, Will Sutton, along with several engineering professors.
Because TVA has a history of innovation in bulk transmission, I already was quite knowledgeable of TVA's research and development initiatives, most recently in demand response, in implementing IEC61850 and in local var control, so I gave Robin Manning, executive vice president and chief energy delivery officer, a call. Manning is quite passionate about research and technology, as well as about being a learning, adaptive organization, so I couldn't wait to see how UTC and TVA had become more than the sum of the parts. So I packed my bags and made my way to Chattanooga.
Long-time professor Phil Kazemersky arranged the UTC visit. We both have been in the industry for a long time and know a lot of the same people, so we got together at a local brew pub to chew the fat. Amidst talking about grandkids, industry trends and old utility experiences, we discussed the types of students our utilities and manufacturers want to hire.
Kazemersky essentially had two careers, one at TVA and one at UTC. He shared that UTC has a history of collaborating with industry and told me about a design project involving microturbines where students compete to develop innovative solutions to industry problems in ways that require the use of cross-disciplinary teams. Kazemersky caught my attention when he shared that students were required to give presentations on their work at least twice a semester. So this university works toward developing engineers who know how to collaborate and communicate. Now that is a worthy goal!
The next morning, I met Prof. Ahmed Eltom in UTC's digital relay lab (with an investment of $1.5 million). I discovered that Eltom had worked as an electrical engineer at the Electricity Corporation of Sudan and later served as an consultant to TVA. Ahmed has taken a leading role in getting this laboratory up and running. Located within the college of engineering, this lab contains the exact equipment students are likely to encounter in industry. This lab is a collaborative effort between TVA engineers and UTC professors.
As to the equipment in the lab, Schweitzer Engineering Labs donated an SEL 2020 communications processor as well as phase and ground distance, protection and automation, current differential and directional over-current relays. GE Multilin and ABB also donated relays. A communications scheme accommodates 61850 open networked communications architecture. I also spotted an Omicron 256 real-time digital simulator for dynamic relay testing. Operation Technology Inc. likewise donated its ETAP power systems modeling software package. Talk about a learning haven for our next-generation engineering students.
Speaking of students, I met with graduate students Sarra Abd Elwahid and Abubakr Babiker who were only too glad to show me how they set up circuits to simulate those on the TVA system. They also can determine the location and response of the system to simulated faults.
At the lab, I met adjunct professors from TVA, including Jim Kurtz, Cassandra Goff and Mark Goff. Kurtz was practically glowing when he described the impact this lab is having in advancing the skills and understanding of both practicing engineers and engineering students. I learned from Kurtz that engineers from TVA and other regional utilities including Southern Company and Electricity Power Board (EPB) routinely take classes at this lab, as well.
I had the opportunity to go to lunch with the dean of engineering, Will Sutton. He also put in a stint at an electric utility, having worked at the old Carolina Power & Light Co., mostly on the generation side. Sutton came to UTC because he saw a real opportunity to support industry in the region (including TVA, Alstom and EPB) while building up a more experiential and meaningful engineering curriculum.
Sutton is dedicated to creating a pragmatic organization to support industry in the region. He spends a lot of time developing public/private partnerships like the one I witnessed with TVA. When asked what type of students he would like to turn out, Sutton replied, “We are all about graduating work-ready engineers, and we work to prepare these future employees to undertake both followship and leadership roles.”
Sutton mentioned UTC's “Get on Board” day, in which student leaders across the university are challenged to show critical thinking. He also mentioned the importance of providing students access to internships with companies, including TVA, so that they have real practical experience when they enter the workforce.
What I saw at UTC is quite different from what I've witnessed at other engineering schools that were forced to kill or reduce their power programs when they couldn't draw sufficient students to the programs. Similarly, power labs were shuttered or remain on life support. But now with a global economic malaise, and with jobs hard to get, energy is becoming the new sexy, and investment in power programs is increasing along with increased investment in new transmission, the emergence of smart grid and with wind and solar energy initiatives.
I hope that my earlier comments on universities are dated, and I am more than ready to be proven wrong. If you are proud of the relationships with your colleges and universities, let me know and I'll share your progress. We need more examples of true collaboration between our utilities and our universities if we are to develop the next generation of engineers who will set the direction for our industry in the years and decades to come.