The Block Island Wind Farm's five turbines sit about three miles off Rhode Island's coast. Credit: Ionna22 / Wikimedia Commons

A state-funded pilot program looks to inspire kids to think about offshore wind with field trips and classroom curriculum.

On a mild afternoon last month, dozens of Rhode Island high school students shuffled aboard a two-level ferry, eager to see offshore wind turbines up close for the first time.

A new education program called Wind Win RI hopes to build a workforce pipeline for New England’s fast-emerging offshore wind industry by offering experiences like this field trip to the Block Island Wind Farm, a five-turbine wind farm about three miles off Rhode Island’s coast.

The offshore wind industry is expected to create 16,700 jobs in the Northeast by 2028. Rhode Island is already a leader in the nascent sector. The state’s second offshore wind farm, from Revolution Wind, is expected to start producing electricity by 2023.

Wind Win RI is a strategic approach to start cultivating talent now. Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, is the brains behind the program. Shortly after the Block Island Wind Farm debuted, Urbach applied for a grant through the state’s Department of Labor and Training’s Real Jobs program.

Historically, Real Jobs has focused on filling jobs that Rhode Island needs now. Wind Win RI is instead focused on future jobs. “We know these turbines are going in the waters off our shores,” she said. “We want to ensure we have residents who can apply for those jobs.”

It’s especially critical as the workforce continues to age across the state and in the region. Right now, 55-plus is the fastest growing age group among Rhode Island’s private sector workforce.

Laura Hastings, the grant adviser for Wind Win RI, said the state labor department recognizes that offshore wind is coming. The workforce needs aren’t here yet, but they will be in a year or two.

“Rhode Island is at the forefront, and we want it to remain so,” Hastings said.

With an initial $100,000 grant, Wind Win RI kicked off in two schools this fall: North Kingston High School and Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich. Urbach hired a curriculum designer, Dr. Joy McGuirl-Hadley, to design a comprehensive career pathway training system. They also conducted a skills assessment to understand the various roles in the sector and the training required for them, from engineers and construction workers to crew members and boat builders.

At the high school level, the program offers courses on everything from marine safety to engineering, with the goal of getting students to graduate with an offshore wind energy certificate equivalent to nine college credits. The class of 2020 will be the first to graduate with the energy certification, which will include special licenses, marine safety certification, first aid and more. Then, students can pursue a trade out of high school, or continue on to college for further education in wind energy. Urbach doesn’t know the exact number of students who plan to complete the certification yet. They won’t be declaring for another year, but she is hopeful.

Wind Win RI will also beta test a turbine competition at a local college next year similar to existing robotics competitions. “One of the universities has an amazing wind tunnel they can test wind turbines in,” Urbach said. And for middle schoolers, the program offers field trips and other experiential learning.

Wind Win RI isn’t the first of its kind. Fifteen years ago, former schoolteacher Michael Arquin founded Kid Wind, a Minnesota-based educational wind energy organization. Wind Win RI drew inspiration from Kid Wind for its work in middle schools, including project ideas and classroom activities like the KidWind Challenge, which Arquin describes as “the pinewood derby of renewables.” There’s also Connect4Wind, a partnership between University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Bristol Community College and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, which is developing a collaborative curriculum centered on offshore wind energy.

It’s important to start young, Arquin said. But that doesn’t mean engaging students with wind energy isn’t without its challenges. It’s complex, even for adults, and exposure is critical, he said.

“It’s about helping people understand how complex the whole system is,” he said.

Field trips, like the one to the Block Island Wind Farm, make the career a reality in the minds of students. It generates excitement for something that can often be abstract. “You’re awestruck by the size of it,” Urbach said. “[You have] no comprehension until you see it.”

Wind Win RI is still in its early stages and plans to expand to more classrooms next year; the program just received another $200,000 from the state. The ultimate goal is to have the pilot project adopted at schools across the state, including urban school districts in places like Pawtucket.

Organizers also want to further develop and formalize relationships with post-secondary institutions like the New England Institute of Technology, the Community College of Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island. Urbach will work with colleges to accept the high school certification and apply the credits to a degree program, while also building off or integrating some of their existing coursework.

The New England Institute of Technology, for example, is developing a career-mapping matrix for high school students. Henry Young, who oversees the school’s renewable energy program, said it will help students understand how their interests align with careers in wind energy projects. “We have to reach back to high school and middle schools to develop a pipeline of students,” he said.

In year two, Wind Win RI also plans to engage incumbent, underemployed and unemployed workers, so they can get training and skills required for existing offshore wind-related jobs. “Any type of program that provides additional training for anyone at any level is beneficial,” Urbach said. “We want to ensure that Rhode Islanders have jobs and this is great opportunity for them.”

Meg is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut who reports on the environment, gender and media. She’s reported and edited for the Columbia Journalism Review, PBS NewsHour, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. In addition, her audio work has appeared on WSHU, Marketplace, WBAI, and NPR. Meg covers Connecticut and Rhode Island.