Electrical Engineering Pre-Grad Intern Charles Douglas
I have learned much in the span of one semester. I used the IE Internship to conduct research about solar panels and extrapolate useful information from all the data I came across. To work on this research, I looked at a specific problem that I encountered earlier in my college career and tailored everything towards solving that problem. I came into the IE program with no prior research experience, but I come out of this internship with a better idea of what I'd like to end up in my future. By attending a conference related to the research I did during this internship, I interacted with respected researchers and industry people of the field. As a result of IE, I take with me in-depth experience and a newfound interest in the renewable energy field.
I learned what constitutes good research. Before this program, the only research I conducted dealt with the books I read for English class; I had performed no research related to my major. I did not have any idea where I would begin looking for research ideas or what I wanted to research. When I first approached my IE graduate student mentor, he proposed that I do a project independent from his. The amount of the project that I completed would depend solely on my motivation and my desire for learning more about the field. All of my electrical engineering-related classes during my two and a half years here at the university covered only the basics and I had no prior experience in the broad field of electrical engineering. So I began to think hard about what I could possibly research that would complement what I already learned without too steep of a learning curve. I thought back to other projects I worked on so far in my limited time in college, looking for class projects that I wanted to expand further. I thought about broad social problems that need fixing such as public bus transportation system revamps, image recognition and processing using the Xbox Kincet, and prosthetic limb advancement. My research advisor, however, studies none of those topics; he is an expert, but in another field of electrical engineering.
Thus by considering all the possible projects I wanted to work during the semester, the IE internship simultaneously broadened and narrowed my view of career paths within electrical engineering from the project conceptualization stage. My views broadened when I considered all the things I could do with my engineering degree. I approached the project conceptualization stage by first figuring out what I would like to do for the rest of my life and not necessarily by looking at what engineering jobs are available. I wanted to find some problem and figure out how to apply my engineering skills to solve that problem. My views of electrical engineering career paths also narrowed when I noticed how much work must go into the research that I wanted to do. I realized that I would have to perform a large amount research just to familiarize myself with the background concepts no matter what project I undertook. I know I work best when I have someone to interact with and who is available to answer questions almost instantaneously. Since my IE mentor is a Ph.D. candidate researching how renewable energy sources can integrate into the current power grid, I quickly decided that doing a project about renewable energy would be best.
While I knew that I wanted to research something in the energy industry (preferably dealing with renewable sources), I did not know what context to give place my research. One organization I was a part of on campus is called GlobeMed. This organization partnered with a clinic in El Salvador a year ago and continues to raise funds to assist the clinic in any way possible. Through this organization, I learned that students can have a profound impact on the lives of many people while still in school. The first semester I was in GlobeMed, the organization raised over $9000 to help build 47 latrines in the surrounding area of the clinic. Thinking back to the clinic and seeing how impactful a student-led project could be inspired me to consider this clinic as the perfect place to implement my research. Much like the power system I originally wanted to create, I intend to continue work on my project in future semesters. At first, I was uncertain if I had the necessary skill set to conduct such research; I was apprehensive that creating renewable energy power system would prove too advanced for me at this point in my collegiate career. I presented my idea to my research advisor and he thought that not only was it a good project, but a project I could comprehend. With that boost of confidence, I conducted my research over the course of the next few months.
I came into this research opportunity with nothing, but I built up my knowledge and tool set over the semester to tackle the clinic's energy demand problem. In the same breath that my research advisor confirmed I should simulate and model a renewable energy power system for my project, he recommended that I look at a book titled "Renewable and Efficient Electric Power Systems" written by Dr. Gilbert M. Masters. I used this book as the basis for my knowledge on the subject. The book served as a consolidated source for any basic information that I needed about the main renewable energy sources in existence today. In other words, I would not have come close to where I am in my project without this book. I also learned Google is a powerful search tool. I found the hourly solar irradiance data required to determine the amount of power a solar panel could provide by searching for "El Salvador hourly solar irradiance data;" I did not expect the information to be readily accessible like that. Of course the issue of source credibility comes into play when searching through engines like Google. I learned that sites that ended with ".edu", ".gov", and ".org" tend to have more useful and heavily cited data. I learned that though looking at any data on any site is a good way to start research, the source must be credible within its industry and generally contains references to other credible sources.
I adapted the data I researched to help create an idea of the power system I should create for the clinic. My project evolved from the first concept I had. Originally, I wanted to create a system that interfaced a solar panel array and a personal wind farm to a large battery. The clinic would draw all its power from the batteries and would not need to pay for electricity from the power company, allowing the clinic to use that money to helping more people. I quickly found out my proposed system was too complex for me to create in once semester. Therefore I changed my semester project's purpose to simulating different solar array and battery sizes using the hourly solar irradiance data to calculate how much of the clinic's energy demand the system could account for. With this new purpose, I did not need a complex system to extract meaningful results. So now I completed a meaningful project this semester. I still intend on expanding on the research done this semester by adding a cost analysis to determine the best solar panel and battery storage brands for application at the clinic and eventually adding a wind power component to the system. By the end of the semester, I interpreted the solar irradiance data so I can easily see the amount of energy different solar array sizes give versus the clinic's energy demand. This information will allow me to determine a good size for the required battery storage.
I learned not only about working with power systems, but I also found a passion for the power industry after going through this semester. I now can see myself working in the power engineering industry for life whereas I almost shunned the idea before (a mentality that made it difficult to come up with an initial research project). I have had a difficult time trying to find my motivation for continuing in the electrical engineering field for the longest time. The work is difficult, most of my basics courses had not related the learning material to what engineers actually do in industry, and many of the people I studied with changed their majors. I lacked motivation to continue through my degree. However, this research project gave me a context to frame the rest of my collegiate engineering career since I now have the ability to relate topics in my classes to the research. I intend on specializing in power and energy in my remaining two years here at the university, a decision heavily influenced by my research. I found a passion to dive deeper into the power industry and I intend on keeping up with current events in the industry. I benefited in academic and social aspects of my life and I am grateful I had the opportunity to go through the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program.