Laredo students partner with TEES and West Texas A&M engineers to provide electricity to colonias

June 28, 2007
| By: Aubrey Bloom

(Laredo) -- About 40 high school students from Laredo's two engineering magnet schools are working with researchers in the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) and West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) to provide electricity to colonias residents along the U.S.-Mexico border who are currently without power. Dean Schneider, an engineer with the TEES Texas Center for Applied Technology in San Antonio, said that students in the United High School Engineering and Technology Magnet School and the Laredo ISD Magnet for Engineering and Technology Applications (Cigarroa High School) are collaborating with TEES and WTAMU engineers to build and install four wind turbines in 2007 and 2008-one per year from each school. Two demonstration turbines, built by students at each high school, were installed May 26. One will power the electric marquee in front of Cigarroa High School in South Laredo and the other will provide lighting for part of the Webb County Self-Help Center where colonia residents can borrow tools. The students built the wind turbines from existing plans and will generate a set of instructions that will be translated into Spanish to be understandable by typical colonia residents in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Schneider said the end-product of the collaboration is not the turbines themselves but rather the set of instructions the students generate on how to build and install the turbines. "The students did a great job," Schneider said. "I think they learned that while a project may seem easy conceptually, details can be killers. Their minds were stretched in ways that they were not used to thinking, and they got to see what it takes to put a working device together when dealing with costs, scheduling and other factors that practicing engineers deal with all the time." David Canales, director of United's engineering magnet school, and engineering principles instructor Laura Rodriguez said the two teams focused on different aspects of the turbines: The United students focused on the turbines' alternators for power and the towers, while the Cigarroa students built the blades and the alternator housing and tail structures for the turbines. The students who participate next year will switch roles for the final two turbines while also collecting data on the turbines' energy production and performance. "Each of us gets to go through the entire process," Rodriguez said. Canales said TEES engineers and researchers from WTAMU's Alternative Energy Institute are providing hands-on instruction and lectures on wind energy as well as engineering project management and execution. "The lectures tie into what we're doing already-science, math, engineering and even geography, such as the places where it's best to use wind as an energy source. This project just fits in so well because it's what we've been doing. "And everyone gets to do it, not just seniors or the very top kids. This is very much project-based, hands-on, real-life learning." LISD's engineering magnet school director Gus Perez said, "That professional engineers working in the field are coming in to provide direct, in-class instruction to the students sets apart our magnet programs from most other programs that might just have professionals coming in to do talks or presentations during career days. The engineers' lectures covered topics ranging from forces, magnetism, batteries and electric machines to wind energy and blade theory." In addition to face-to-face interactions, the students participated in webcam-based program reviews while constructing the demonstration turbines. They discussed issues that arose during construction and provided program briefings with TEES engineers in San Antonio and WTAMU engineers in Canyon. LISD engineering teacher Amanda Gonzalez said, "This gives the magnet students working on this project a real-world experience that most students at the university don't even get." Schneider agreed, adding that he's hopeful that at least some of the students will pursue careers in engineering in Texas. "The neat thing about this program is that it gives students a chance to interact with engineers and to see that engineering affects virtually every aspect of daily life," he said. "The fact that we're building wind turbines is not as important as the fact that they're learning that engineering can be an exciting and rewarding profession." Schneider said he got the idea for the project when he learned about a similar effort in Mexico while attending a conference. The project is part of a two-year, $100,000 grant from the Texas State Energy Conservation Office. Other project partners include Texas A&M University's Center for Housing and Urban Development (CHUD) in the College of Architecture and the Webb County Department of Economic Development, which operates the County Colonia Community Centers and Self-Help Center.

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