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Guidance to Collegiate Institutions on Participating in the Build Challenge

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Participating as a team in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is an intense but rewarding endeavor. What makes the Solar Decathlon unique is the interdisciplinary nature of the competition, requiring student and faculty involvement from multiple disciplines and departments, and the real-life experience it provides to students, preparing them for jobs after graduation. At the same time, this requires a lot of support and cooperation from the collegiate institution.

Over the years, we’ve collected advice and lessons learned from participating teams that may be helpful to collegiate institutions considering the Solar Decathlon Build Challenge. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is intended to help teams prepare for supporting their students and faculty in designing, building, operating, and competing successfully in the Solar Decathlon. See some examples of lessons learned from student videos from Washington University in St. Louis, who participated in Solar Decathlon 2017.

Institution Leadership Support: Participating in the Solar Decathlon is viewed as a premier, substantive workforce development project that brings gravitas to collegiate institutions, helping attract prospective students and corporate sponsors and building pride among students and alumni. Having collegiate institution leadership that appreciates and supports team efforts with sufficient resources and rewards students and faculty for their efforts is viewed as critical to success. Leadership from the top, with cross-departmental cooperation (funding, staff time, administrative and development support, etc.), conveys that involvement in the Solar Decathlon is positive, prestigious, and worth the effort—not only for the students involved but also for faculty, staff, and the collegiate institution.

Faculty/Administrative Support: Faculty and professional staff need to feel rewarded for their participation and support for students by deans and senior levels of the collegiate institution. Viewing participation as akin to research signals to faculty that this experience will contribute to their professional success, particularly for non-tenured staff. In addition, allocating resources and staff for administrative support to help with contracting, paperwork, and project management is strongly advised. Anticipating and securing budget and staffing across departments is particularly important to ensuring that funding is available when needed. Creating curricula/coursework and blocking class schedules specific to the Solar Decathlon is highly valuable to professors and students.

Construction Support: As part of the application, collegiate institutions will need to have a plan for where their house will be built, how it will be moved, and, where it will live after the competition. In addition, allocating resources for planning and maintenance staff to support the team with requirements—such as health and safety, electrical and plumbing support, transportation and rigs, etc.—is necessary. In addition, faculty support throughout the construction process is key to sustaining student interest and participation, because this is arguably the hardest part of the competition.

Student Support: A variety of students will likely participate in the Solar Decathlon, ranging from a core team of student leaders working on the team during the two years of the project to those who help in one or more of the 10 contests. Students have cited the need for ongoing faculty support, academic credit for their efforts (through dedicated course[s] or via independent study credit), and stipends for internships during the summer as key to maintaining their commitment to the Solar Decathlon project. Helping students with project management, fundraising, troubleshooting, and leadership skills is also key to success and develops valuable job preparation skills. Finally, creating courses related to an aspect of the Solar Decathlon (for example, architecture studio, engineering, or energy modeling) is particularly helpful to a coherent design and sustained participation. Teams that do not have an architecture program are encouraged to seek out this expertise through a local firm or other means, preferably earlier rather than later.

Fundraising Support: The team is responsible for raising the bulk of its funding to cover the cost of designing, building, testing, operating, and fielding (i.e., moving, housing, and feeding) enough students to participate in the competition. Teams also need to think about transportation costs and logistics to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in D.C., for the house module in the National Showcase Division and for the team exhibit in the Local Build Division. Collegiate institutions rarely pay directly for the full cost of participation. Costs are estimated to be between $200,000 and $1 million, dependent upon the house design undertaken and Division chosen, requiring all teams to successfully raise funds and in-kind contributions. Teams that have been the most successful have had fundraising/development and communications support from their collegiate institutions to help students approach companies, alumni, and others to help supplement whatever internal funding is identified. Past teams recommend creating a plan as early as possible, with dedicated staff/students, a plan for fundraising events, lists of contacts to ensure that fundraising goals will be met, and a well-thought-out media plan. Past teams have recommended creating a solid media/communications plan as early as possible—with adequate staffing, budget, and coherent presentation to not only satisfy the communications contest but also to cultivate fundraising. A benefit to this is that Solar Decathlon garners significant media attention, which in turn provides significant media opportunities for participating collegiate institutions.

Final Homes for the Houses: Teams, competing in the National Showcase Division, should think in advance about how the house will be used following the competition. Will it be a showcase for the university? Will it be sold to a private owner or transferred to a large donor? Will it be open to the public for tours? Will it be rented out to students or full-time occupants? Depending on whether or not a team chooses to pursue the Local Build or National Showcase Divisions, a team may also need to pay for permanent foundations and installation following the conclusion of the competition. See this link for where past Solar Decathlon houses have ended up.

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