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Alex Steele accepts his WIU diploma from his adviser, Michele Aurand
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WIU Student Obtains First Degree in Renewable Energy

December 17, 2012

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MACOMB, IL -- When Alex Steele, a Western Illinois University senior from Milan (IL), walked across the stage at graduation Dec. 15, he had the distinction of being the first WIU student to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, with a concentration in Renewable Energy and Wind Technology.

When Steele transferred to Western a few years ago, he chose construction management as a major, which seemed to be a natural progression after working for his father's construction company for many years. But he became more intrigued with focusing on renewable energy when he had the opportunity to work on the pre-stages of a wind farm in Kansas with his father's company.

"When I was in Kansas I had the experience of putting up nine met towers for wind samples for the wind farm. Ever since, I had an interest in wind technology and thought it would be a great degree," he said.

As part of his degree program, Steele completed an internship with WIU's Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs' Wind Energy Program. Jolene Willis, IIRA wind energy program coordinator, served as Steele's site supervisor for the two-credit hour (80 clock hour) internship.

"I have gained such a wide variety of experience in the renewable energy program at Western," he explained. "I was able to study a broad range of topics that included economics, cartography, agriculture, sciences, and logistics. The turning point from learning in the classroom compared to real world, day-to-day operations happened when I completed my internship with the IIRA.

"The experience I had with the IIRA's renewable energy program was incredible. I learned a tremendous amount about legal aspects, codes, and regulations that go into building and developing wind towers," Steele added.

As part of the internship, Steele received hands-on experience preparing for a small wind turbine installation on the WIU campus, which occurred Dec. 6 when a 70 foot, 2.4 kW (kilowatt) turbine and tower was erected just west of Western's Harry Mussatto Golf Course. The turbine, which will offset a fraction of the WIU golf course's electrical load, is part of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs' Illinois Wind for Schools project. The turbine will serve as an on-site classroom for high school and junior high school students from around the state. Willis added that it will also provide additional hands-on learning experiences for other WIU students from a variety of degree programs.

Steele will return to his family's construction business, where he intends to move the business forward into even more renewable energy contracts.

According to Michele Aurand, Interdisciplinary Studies Program (ISP) academic adviser and program coordinator, the ISP offers three renewable energy concentrations: biofuel technology, wind technology and policy, planning and management. Five years ago, due to the growing interest in renewable energy, Aurand's predecessor, Rita Creger, established a committee to review the possibility of creating renewable energy concentrations.

"When the committee first met to review these concentrations, they looked at programs that other schools were offering and also spoke with experts in the field. Armed with this information, they began looking at courses that were offered on our campus that would be a good fit for these concentrations," Aurand explained.

The concentrations were first offered in Fall 2009. There are currently 15 students enrolled in the renewable energy concentrations.

For more information on the ISP renewable energy concentrations, contact Aurand at (309) 298-2586 or For more information on the IIRA's wind energy program, contact Willis at (309) 298-2835 or

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