Post by Greg Gangi
I’ve spent more than a decade as a faculty member here at UNC teaching environmental science classes. During that time period I’ve seen a significant shift in the interests of undergraduate students. In the past, students were more focused on understanding and researching basic environmental and natural resource issues, such water and air quality. Today’s students arrive on campus with an interest and determination in taking on current environmental challenges and developing solutions to those challenges.
This mindset is well illustrated by the UNC Clean Tech Summit—the fourth annual event that was held just a few weeks ago in Chapel Hill. The Summit brings together industry professionals, policy-makers, academics and students to foster a dialogue on current topics and advance the clean technology industry.
Students from a number of disciplines, such as environmental sciences, business, computer science, economics, law, and public policy, were represented at the Summit. Summit topics focused on how clean technology is disrupting, innovating, and improving the energy, water, and food sectors. Not only do students get exposure and learn more about these current topics, they were offered an opportunity to engage with professionals during mentoring sessions and networking events.
Over the past four Clean Tech Summits hundreds of students have been able to take advantage of learning about the clean tech industry and the potential career paths that await them. According to the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster the Research Triangle region is home to over 350 clean tech companies and thousands of employees working in the fields of clean energy, smart transportation, and innovative water projects.
At this year’s Summit attendees heard from Megan Neligan, a recent UNC graduate, who is now working as a project analyst with Cypress Creek Renewables. Megan addressed a plenary session of the conference by outlining her personal story that led from UNC to Cypress Creek. She emphasized the role the Summit played in making connections with industry leaders and sparked her interest in working in the clean energy field. She encouraged students in attendance to ensure that they were taking a broad range of classes and that environmental students should balance out their class schedules with business or economics classes and vice versa.
While Megan’s story was inspiring it is just one of the many examples of UNC students who are graduating and finding a career in the clean tech industry. As noted above, the proximity of the Research Triangle plays a large role in that success. In addition, having two nationally leading solar companies with offices in the area, Cypress Creek and Strata Solar, has created internship opportunities and full time jobs for dozens of UNC students and graduates.
The Summit represents a mutually beneficial gathering for both industry and the university. Students gain immeasurable connections to current leaders and companies have the opportunity to connect with bright and energetic students. In some cases these connections lead to permanent relationships and the development of future clean tech industry leaders.