During my STEP signature project I constructed a Sustainable Solar Garden from scratch with the help of STEP resources. I attended a week-long certification class about Solar Panel Installation and used this knowledge to design and build my own solar generator. The generator was then used to power an irrigation, garden, and compost system that I built in the backyard of my Cincinnati home.
The reason I chose this project was because I wanted to challenge my abilities as an engineer and my own confidence. I knew that I could handle the theoretical engineering principles in my classes, but I knew there wouldn’t be a point to that if I couldn’t apply these principles in the real world. Having never built much before, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to bridge this gap and basically end up wasting my education. In addition, I’ve never really considered myself as a handyman, so I haven’t had the confidence to build or fix things for myself. I wanted my STEP experience to change this and I definitely succeeded.
After my STEP experience I have a new confidence in my education and hands on abilities, as well as, a new appreciation for life-long learning. Having successfully built my solar garden system, I actually feel that I’m ahead, rather than behind, in my hands on education. I’m proud that I can fully design and construct residential solar arrays as only a sophomore in college, which is a profession in itself. I also realized that my worry wasn’t about bridging the gap between theoretical and real world applications, but that I won’t have enough time to complete my goal of making global progress towards a sustainable future. For example, if I didn’t know how to even screw two boards together, how could I make technology that affects millions? However, the people I talked to and the experiences I’ve had during this STEP experience taught me one very important lesson, which is that life is about continuous learning. I don’t have to accomplish my goals tomorrow as long as I continue to learn and grow as person.
The experience that exemplified my reasoning for doing this project was my first visit to the hardware store. I felt utterly and completely out of place as I didn’t where anything was or what they did. I brought in my solar generator tutorial book as a reference in case I forgot anything, but even that didn’t help my feeling of anxious confusion. I remember asking a worker for a “soffit vent” and being embarrassed when trying to explain what it looked like. However, I inevitably made several more trips to the store as my project was coming together. Each time I became more and more comfortable knowing where items were and what they were used for. It’s weird to think of it this way, but I was basically practicing going to the hardware store. I learned a lot about the resources I have just around the corner and gained a sense of confidence to use in hands on projects.
During the second week in May I traveled to Indianapolis for a one week certification class in Photovoltaic Installation. The class was comprised of retired army vets, company executives, professors…and me. Each day we spent about half of the class listening to lectures and doing practice problems, then the other half were hands on labs. I learned a lot about solar, electricity, and wiring, so I aced the certification test at the end of the week. However, I learned the most from the others in my class. Most of the guys were in their sixties and were taught how to use tools by their fathers when they were kids. I never had that experience, because my father emigrated here from India and that’s not the norm in India. Throughout the week they taught me fairly quickly the basics of crimping and wiring, as well as, some tips and tricks of the trade. But what I loved the most was that these guys were there to learn. Some of them had been electricians for decades, but they were there to learn more about solar. This helped me realized that I don’t need to stress about knowing everything right now, because life is about constantly learning new things. To add to my confidence, the class helped me realize that I happen to be a quick study.
The last experience that led to my transformation was finishing my garden project. I took the system in steps, first building the generator, then setting up the garden, and then figuring out the irrigation system. My last step was to connect all of the pieces into one working system where the sun was charging the generator, which powered the water pump, which watered the garden. The weekend of July 16th I finished the project and hooked up all the pieces, but the feeling was not what I expected. Rather than reveling in the success, I started looking for ways to improve the performance. Later on I felt very accomplished when my mom said she was actually using the watering system and making zucchini bread from the garden, but in that moment I only wanted to learn more. I wanted to figure out how I could improve water flow or increase the solar production or decrease the amount of weeds. I know it is important to celebrate milestones, but I think this signifies that I have embraced the continual quest for knowledge.
This project has built my confidence and my curiosity. I have been thinking a lot about ways to use my new hands on skills. I really want to make some exercise equipment and a window garden for my dorm room next semester. I also hope to expand the solar garden to more plots and improve the watering system by adding a timer and a drip irrigation system. Now, it’s time for me to start learning and to never stop.
The information that I learned in this experience has already helped immensely in my professional career. After the class in solar panel installation, I began my summer internship at American Electric Power. I used this information heavily to build models of solar + storage projects and it has helped set me apart from my age group. Learning how to garden (especially cilantro) has also been a personal goal of mine for a while. However, the most valuable takeaway is the guidance it has given me when deciding between working in industry or research after college. Basically my two future plans are: get a job right after college and work my way up the corporate ladder at a green energy related company or go to graduate school and conduct research on a green energy topic. My monotonous corporate internship this summer in conjunction with the fun I’ve had building my own system has definitely pushed me towards the research path. I learned that I really enjoy having a mixture of hands on and computer work, which ties well into the kind of research that I want to do. I also have more confidence that I can perform in a lab setting, because I ran numerous tests while building my system. Now that I am on my path towards research, I can use my STEP experience as fuel to pursue a more sustainable future full force.