Environmental Leadership Visits the Solar Decathlon

By: Erica Paul- Environmental Leadership Participant

When it was first announced that the Eisenhower Institute’s Environmental Leadership Program would be going to California, I immediately thought of Laguna Beach and The Real Housewives of Orange County. But EL was not in Irvine to indulge in pop culture fantasies; we were going to a research convention that is at the forefront of solar energy development.

The Solar Decathlon is a convention where groups of college students compete to construct the most energy-efficient, cost-effective, and aesthetically-pleasing solar-powered home that they can. As highlighted by the Solar Decathlon’s website, the goal is to blend “affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.” When planning the Environmental Leadership trip to Irvine, the focal point was our attendance at the Solar Decathlon and the corresponding research that would be conducted. Hiking, whale watching, and other leisure activities, however splendid they may be, took the back burner in order to further our environmental education.

Our enthusiastic and engaged group of 12 decided to focus on the team management dynamic and how the structure and leadership of the Solar Decathlon teams shaped the construction of the house itself. One of the key reasons for this line of research was to highlight the gender imbalances in the demographics of the individual teams. By presenting this research to the Department of Energy, EL aims to help improve the structure of the Solar Decathlon, which is a remarkable educational program. As they aim to attract public awareness to renewable energy initiatives, then I do think it would be beneficial to include a diverse group of people in these efforts. As society is trying to become more accepting of people’s individualism and unique lifestyles, it is important for competitions to recognize that diversity has the potential to enhance progress. Before arriving at the Solar Decathlon, each member of Environmental Leadership chose a specific Solar Decathlon team to do preliminary research on. For most of the teams, there was a comprehensive website set up for their house, focusing on the team members, the layout of the house, the sponsors, and other applicable information to the public. The goal was to find out the demographic information of the team members and input the information into a group document. Unfortunately, my team did not have a website with this information, so this became a question point during our interview. During our last meeting before our trip to Irvine, we decided on questions to ask during interviews with each team. These questions focused on the leadership selection process, the departments of the students and their faculty advisor, as well as how the theme of the project came to be.

Saturday, October 10th was EL’s first full day in Irvine, and we spent the morning at the Solar Decathlon. We arrived at the Decathlon on electric bikes, courtesy of the Irvine-based company Pedegeo. After our arrival, we broke into small teams and began to tackle the interviews. At first, the task seemed daunting; the sheer number of people and the scope of their work was disorienting. Our fears evaporated quickly once the interview process began. I interviewed a dual team made up of students from Western New England University and the University of Panama (as well as a University in Honduras). A student from WNEU was the first interview subject. The WNEU team was very small, but had still managed to complete their entire house in just ten days.

In the vein of our study, the primary focus was on the makeup of the team. Despite the student body of WNEU being 40% female, there were only 2 girls out of 9 participants. In total, the team of 25 people, including WNEU, Panama, and Honduras, was only 28% female.

Across the study, it was found that most teams had a higher percentage of men than women. My project partner’s interviews went quite smoothly as well, however, most of our group agreed that our approach to our house’s team members was too timid to be very

successful. As a result, we did not initially receive all the necessary information for our research. During our session with Professor Ernst prior to our second day at the decathlon, we were provided with a list of questions for a 20 to 25 minute interview. The morning discussion was enough to kick me into high gear. When I went back for my second interview, I was more persistent and asked more in-depth questions. We received demographic information from our team, as well as a sheet with all the tasks for the house and who was assigned to do them. This became invaluable to my final research. Throughout our trip to Irvine, I not only learned about solar-powered homes, but also the necessity of acing an interview. It was essential to be persuasive – and at times, a little forceful – with my Decathlon team in order to receive the necessary information.