David Schieren is the chief executive officer of a leading Long Island, New York, solar engineering and installation company. He’s also a U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon alumnus and outspoken advocate for the competition.
Schieren emphasizes the Solar Decathlon’s unique way of teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) provides participants with the experience they need for the clean energy workforce.
“There is simply no substitute for direct experience, and the Solar Decathlon provides an unparalleled opportunity to work with a real budget and collaborate with an interdisciplinary team on renewable energy, energy efficiency, construction, project management, marketing, communications, and fundraising,” says Schieren, CEO of EmPower Solar. “The Solar Decathlon played a pivotal role in my professional development because it gave me the ultimate crash course in STEM topics through both academic textbook learning and project/competition-based learning.”
Schieren was a graduate student in energy management when he joined the New York Institute of Technology’s Solar Decathlon 2005 team.
“When I first learned about the Solar Decathlon, I knew immediately that the scope of work as an engineering team member would encompass all the hands-on learning experience I was craving as a student of renewable energy and energy efficiency and that it would position me well for the workforce,” he says. Schieren spent two years as the energy team leader, with overall responsibility for engineering and joint responsibility for project management, fundraising, communication, and leadership efforts. The team finished in fifth place.
But his involvement with the competition didn’t end there. Schieren has attended every U.S. event since 2005. And in 2007, he cofounded the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Alumni Association, which provides a forum for former decathletes to connect, build relationships, share information, network about job opportunities, and advocate for renewable energy.
“For me and many competition alumni, the Solar Decathlon is a life-defining event. While I was already passionate about solar and sustainability, the competition transformed my passion into laser focus and clarity of purpose with experience to back me up,” he says. “The Solar Decathlon’s key lesson for me was that through research, positive collaboration, dedication, and hard work, we can use solar with energy efficiency and sustainable building practices to dramatically improve the standard of living.”
Schieren sings the virtues of the Solar Decathlon through his company’s yearly EmPower Solar Student Competition. Encouraging local high school students to discover the benefits of solar power, the competition combines STEM and creative components to communicate students’ research. To date, the Solar Student Competition has engaged hundreds of students and awarded more than $8,000 in scholarships. Best of all, the grand prize is a trip to the Solar Decathlon. Over the years, EmPower Solar has sent the winning teams to Solar Decathlons in Washington, D.C.; Irvine, California; and just recently, to Solar Decathlon Europe 2014 in Versailles, France.
Schieren also demonstrates his Solar Decathlon commitment through EmPower Solar’s hiring practices.
“I actively target decathletes for open positions at my company and recommend them to other recruiters. Solar decathletes are self-selecting ‘A’ players who have a deep passion for sustainability and an unyielding work ethic,” he says. “If I can’t find decathletes, I look for similar traits in other candidates, such as experience with STEM project-based learning and particularly competitions. There is just something about competitions that can show what people are made of and how dedicated they are.”
In addition to helping shape his career, the Solar Decathlon has had a powerful effect on Schieren’s personal life. During the 2005 competition, he met Cristina Zancani, a decathlete from the Rhode Island School of Design team. The two fell in love and eventually married. Today, Zancani, a cofounder of the Solar Decathlon Alumni Association, is EmPower’s senior architect and presently completing construction of the company’s new net-zero energy Solar Design Center.
Carol Laurie is the communications manager of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.