Empowering Communities

STEM Program Stresses Value of “Learning by Doing”

February 1, 2019

What does a group of Chicago high school students from underserved communities have in common with U.S. Department of Energy officials? Both are getting first-hand experience with cutting-edge microgrid technology, courtesy of ComEd.

A new four-year electrical engineering program will introduce students to a wide range of technologies, including the microgrid project that ComEd is installing in the Bronzeville community on Chicago’s Near South Side. The curriculum begins with the fundamentals of electricity and progresses to sensor-based technologies, such as smart streetlights, traffic management systems, air quality monitoring and other innovations that contribute to healthy, economically strong and sustainable communities.

The program was created by HFS Chicago Scholars, which provides financial assistance to economically disadvantaged students to attend top area high schools, and ComEd engineers, who built the curriculum. Classes will be held at ComEd’s Chicago Training Center in the Bridgeport neighborhood.

The Bronzeville microgrid is one of the most significant projects of its kind in the nation. A small power grid that can connect to the main grid or disconnect to keep power flowing in times of emergency, a microgrid ensures a community’s ability to recover from an extreme weather event or a cyber or physical attack. It supports the integration of renewable energy like solar and energy storage, helping reduce carbon emissions. In this case, it also provides a learning opportunity for youths who are interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

At their first workshop in December, students in the program explored the Training Center’s “Grid of the Future Lab.” They saw computer simulations that test the capability of the microgrid master controller that serves as the “brains” of the technology. Students met with the engineers who designed the tests successfully conducted just days earlier for the U.S. Department of Energy, which awarded ComEd grants for microgrid research and construction.

ComEd is connecting the Bronzeville microgrid to an adjacent one on the campus of nearby Illinois Tech, creating the first utility operated microgrid cluster in the nation. The cluster will be the focus of extensive study that will inform the continued design and evolution of the 21st Century grid that serves northern Illinois. At the same time, ComEd hopes the microgrid and other emerging energy technologies will inspire HFS scholars and other students to excel in STEM education – and become part of ComEd’s workforce of the future.