From student to project lead, Louise Petruzzella redevelops the Clean Energy Technology program at SCC

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Shoreline Community College students assess a site
for a vegan farmer's solar energy project.
Photo courtesy Shoreline Community College 

By Madeline Patton

In her first year as the inaugural director of the Clean Energy Technology and Entrepreneurship program at Shoreline Community College, Louise Petruzzella doubled enrollment from 20 to 40 students, reactivated the industry advisory committee and placed all 10 graduates in jobs.

She attributes her accomplishments to several things: a MentorLinks grant, her experience as a graduate of the associate degree program and the subject matter expertise of her five faculty colleagues.

"I have an edge because I was a student in the program," said Petruzzella, who enrolled in winter 2012 and finished her associate degree in clean energy technology in 2014. 

A few other career experiences certainly contributed to Petruzzella maximizing the mentoring, professional development and $20,000 in program development support provided by the MentorLinks grant that the American Association of Community Colleges awarded to her through its Advanced Technological Education grant from the National Science Foundation.

"Without MentorLinks, it wouldn't have been possible. It's not about the money. It's about the cachet," she said.

While Petruzzella was a clean energy technology novice before enrolling at Shoreline, her 15 years of teaching philosophy as a part-time instructor at various colleges gave her an unusual perspective of the program's potential and how to instigate organizational changes to improve it.

Her experience in construction — having worked for her dad's general contracting business as a teenager and used home renovation jobs to pay her college tuition — made her acutely aware of the challenges employers face and their expectations for employees.

When she moved to Washington several years ago, the recession was setting in and she could not find a teaching job. To pay her bills, she went back to construction until she was laid off. When an unemployment office staffer offered retraining, Petruzzella chose the clean energy technology (CET) program at Shoreline.

She liked what she was learning in her CET courses, but was frustrated by the lack of program leadership and structure to help students obtain internships and jobs.

Midway through the program, even as she picked up adjunct teaching assignments (including the CET program), Petruzzella began formulating ways to improve Shoreline's program and use her unusual skill set. She started talking to anyone on campus who would listen to her. Her message: "You have a potentially wonderful program, but you need someone to run it and I suggest you hire me."

College administrators were persuaded and started a formal search for the program's first leader. Shortly after she was hired, Petruzzella and the college's grant writer completed the MentorLinks grant application. "I already had a vision of what I wanted to happen in the program," she said.

Kenneth A. Walz, Petruzzella's MentorLinks mentor, points out that most new faculty members spend their first year getting their bearings, not remaking a program. Walz teaches chemistry and engineering instructor at Madison Area Technical College (MATC) in Wisconsin and is principal investigator of Career Education in Renewable Energy Technologies, an ATE project at MATC.

Petruzzella added three new courses, revised several introductory courses for online delivery, led with Walz, a multi-day biofuels workshop for educators, hosted a regional renewable energy industry conference and established partnerships with a neighboring community college and university.
During the second year of the MentorLinks grant, Petruzzella plans to involve the industry advisory committee (which she grew from four to more than 30 members) in a formal curriculum review to shift the program's focus to high-performance buildings as a state-funded solar energy initiative ends in 2016. She hopes to grow enrollment to 60 students.

"When I say it helped that I was a student in the program, I mean that. I want the success of my students. I saw where the program wasn't doing what it should be doing for our students. So that's what really inspires me. To make sure they are getting relevant training, that they are going to be employed, that they are going to have an internship if they want. That's what's really driving me," she said.


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