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Getting schooled on going green

As part of a sustainability program, the Santa Fe Community College provides training for people working in the building trades to learn the latest green-building technologies.

SANTA FE, N.M.--The community college here is bringing environmental sustainability into the classroom for plumbers and electricians.

I visited the Santa Fe Community College on Saturday as part of a fellowship organized by the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, which leads groups of journalists on expeditions meant to deepen their understanding of environmental issues.

The first stop on our weeklong trip through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado was to visit a new green building on the grounds of Santa Fe Community College. The building itself includes some cutting-edge features, including a solar-powered cooling system, and houses the college's Sustainable Technologies Center. But the college has also reworked its curriculum so that everyone from biofuel researchers to apprentice plumbers has sustainability woven into their courses.

The building hosts a biofuels laboratory where students learn techniques for evaluating strains of algae that can be used to make biofuels. The lab has already led to one spin-off biofuel reactor company. The school also has classic "green jobs" programs to train people to install solar photovoltaic panels, service wind turbines, and weatherize homes.

Just down the hall from the lab are workshops where students learn skills of electricians and plumbers but with a deliberate component of sustainability. On top of learning the basics, plumbing students, for example, learn water conversation techniques, such as how to treat gray water for landscaping or how to plumb a solar hot water system.

"The trades of the 21st century are going to be different from the trades of the 20th century," said Randy Grissom, the college's dean of economic and workforce development and director of its Sustainable Technologies Center. "The homebuilders worked with the city on updating the building codes because they know that [construction business] is slow now, but when it comes back, it'll be different."

The building, which the school began using in January, is giving students some real-world experience. For example, the building installed tanks to filter rain and snow run-off and to use that water for flushing toilets. But the system hasn't quite worked as it was supposed to, so students are involved in redesigning it.

The 400 students in the sustainable technologies program can get either certificates or associates degrees and, so far, many of them have had luck finding jobs, some of them in other places, such as Hawaii, said Grissom.

The community college has seen a big jump in enrollment in the past year, which is typical when unemployment is high. But Grissom said that part of the surge in enrollment involves people learning new skills. One of the biggest challenges in energy-efficient lighting, for example, is training existing electricians on installation, he said.

"Community college is becoming the new graduate school," he said. "People are coming back and taking classes and learning the new technology. It makes for a rich classroom experience."