ASU starts solar energy master’s degree program

GOING SOLAR: The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering have launched Arizona’s first-ever professional science master's degree in solar energy. (Photo by Lisa Bartoli)

ASU’s engineering school launched the first-ever professional science master’s degree in solar energy in Arizona this semester.

Seven students are enrolled in the new 12-month program designed to meet the rising demand for jobs in the solar industry.

Program director Patrick Phelan said employers are looking for students who have both specialized technical and policy skills in the solar energy field.

Phelan said the goal of the degree program is for students to find jobs in the solar industry where they can excel.

“We want them to have an impact in the field of solar energy,” Phelan said.

Completing a professional science master’s degree differs from other master’s degree programs, program manager Karen Dada said. Rather than writing a thesis, students complete an applied research project.

The program requires 30 credit hours, which are split between the study of solar energy policies, like land usage and government funding, and technical solar engineering studies.

ASU offers five other professional science master’s degrees. The solar energy degree program is sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation called the Solar Master’s Program; Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization, Phelan said.  The application process started about a year and a half ago, he said.

The application received support from the provost, the dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the dean of the Graduate College, Phelan said.

“There is a recognized need for better educated professionals in solar energy,” Phelan said.

The grant also sponsored six fellowships of $10,500 and an additional $15,000 stipend for each of the six students, he said. There will be six more fellowships offered in fall 2011 and an additional six in fall 2012 for a total of 18 fellowships, he said.

Fourteen students are already in the process of applying for the degree program for fall 2011, Dada said.

Phelan said the minimum goal for enrollment each semester is 30 students, but he expects it will take five years to reach that goal.

Eventually, the program will offer a mentorship program involving solar professionals designed to help students with projects and build professional connections, Phelan said.

After reaching out to solar companies, the program has received letters of support from seven energy companies working in solar technology, including APS and National Renewable Energy, he said. These letters may lead to participation in the mentorship program, he said.

Solar engineering graduate student Jeff Francis was the first student to enroll in the degree program.  The 55-year-old student said he was drawn to the program specifically because he wanted to be prepared to work in the solar industry right away.

“If it had been just a technical program, I wouldn’t have been interested,” Francis said.

Francis graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. He worked both on the technical and business side of companies like Intel and Tektronix, which produces high-tech testing equipment.

“I’ve already been interdisciplinary,” Francis said. “I can’t imagine myself sitting behind a desk and designing stuff all the time.”

He did see a certain amount of risk in being the first class to graduate with the master’s degree.

“Companies may not know what this degree is and what it means,” Francis said.

But he said he was prepared to explain it to a future employer.

Francis said he found it exciting to help “mold” the program for the future.

Reach the reporter at mshinn@asu.edu