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The present study aims to understand the challenges Vocational Technical (VT) schools in Massachusetts have in order to adopt and institutionalize photovoltaic (PV) education in the curriculum of their electricity programs. By using Diffusion Theory, different requirements for the adoption of an innovation such as PV education will be assessed. The research approach of the study will be qualitative, and a community of practice among participants is intended to be created. It is expected that the results will inform state education policy on how to better integrate renewable energy education into the schools’ programs.
School curricula frameworks that contain PV education are rapidly expanding, and PV literacy is slowly becoming an integral part of VT schools teaching electricity programs (Kandpal and Broman, 2014). However, full adoption and institutionalization of PV education has yet to occur. dd
For this research, Diffusion Theory as a framework and qualitative methods as a research strategy are useful for examining how PV education proponents can increase its adoption and institutionalization within electricity programs in VT schools. Exploring the factors influencing PV education adoption and institutionalization can lead to relevant insights and policy recommendations to meet the goals set in terms of renewable energy and green jobs for the state of Massachusetts.
Background and significance
The use of solar energy can reduce the demand for fossil fuels, contributing to curb the emission of greenhouse gases that account for 41 percent of emissions worldwide (Birol, 2008). Solar energy can be obtained either through solar PV or solar thermal technologies.
PV technology transforms the light of the sun directly into electricity and is currently the most used technology to produce electricity from solar energy. The technology has evolved significantly from its first developments in the 1970s, to the point of featuring a dramatic drop in the cost of solar modules, which have decreased by 99 percent over the last four decades (Kavlak et al, 2018). PV adoption is one of the major success stories for renewable energy, making it one of the preferred technology options to reduce carbon emissions in the electricity and transport sectors.
PV technology is relatively trade intensive compared to other renewables, contributes to a number of sub-markets, and has significant economic and employment growth potential (Algieri et al, 2011; Kandpal and Broman, 2014). Currently, shortage of specialized PV workers in the U.S. are keeping PV installation prices above the level of most developed countries, although hardware costs are similar, limiting the industry’s competitiveness (Olson and Nackerman, 2017). This is especially important for schools in Massachusetts, since the state has the highest solar energy related jobs per capita in the country, and it is expected a higher demand for solar workforce.
In addition to the need for a higher supply of workers, other major incentives for VT High Schools to provide students with training in PV technology are reported faster promotions and pay increases for PV literate electricians (Olson and Nackerman, 2017), therefore the need to identify barriers to PV education diffusion and adoption in order to foster early professional training and provide the right incentives for training institutions to prioritize this effort.
According to Diffusion Theory (Rogers, 1995), diffusion is the process by which an innovation is adopted and institutionalized by members of a given community. Given that PV education is an innovation in existing electricity programs, it is useful to apply the ideas of Diffusion Theory to better understand PV education diffusion and adoption in schools’ curricula.
The theory describes four factors that influence diffusion and adoption of an innovation, which are 1) the awareness on the innovation, 2) the channels used to spread information about the innovation, 3) time, and 4) the nature of the public to whom it is introduced (Rogers, 1995).
The awareness that VT schools have on the attributes of PV energy will be examined through the perception of teachers and managers about the current state and the future of solar technology, alongside the availability (or not) of curricula and equipment that allows for PV education to be imparted in schools. Regarding the channels of information, the study will explore the influence and incentives to implement PV education from federal and state energy policy, both through literature review and the accounts from school managers. One of the assumptions of this study is that Anchor Institutions, such as universities or colleges, might also play a role in informing the schools about the technology.
Time for the innovation to arrive and mature within schools will be examined through the earliest successful adopters of PV education, alongside the experience of current teachers and contributions from former instructors. In terms of the nature of the community to whom PV education is introduced, the focus of this study will be to understand how the environment surrounding electricity programs influences the decision of adopting and institutionalizing new contents within the electricity careers. To do this, the study will look at the role played by teachers, managers, and members of the program’s Advisory Boards, which represent the voices of parents, students, and external institutions such as colleges, businesses or unions.
A graphic model of the conceptual framework can be observed in figure 1.
The main research question of this study is: according to a model of diffusion, what are the challenges Vocational Technical High Schools in Massachusetts face in order to adopt and institutionalize an innovation such as photovoltaic education?
Additional questions are: what are the key elements that allowed certain schools to adopt PV education in their curriculum? and, what is the role of external institutions, such as businesses and colleges, in the diffusion and adoption of PV education in VT schools in Massachusetts?
Type of Study and Procedure
The research is exploratory becausethe problem of limited implementation of PV education in VT Schools in Massachusetts has not been studied to a great extent, or at least not drawing on prior theory and research (Maxwell, 2012), such as the diffusion model presented by Rogers (1995), therefore the need to establish priorities, generate operational definitions, and structure an adequate research design for the issue. However, the means for data gathering could also be labeled as descriptive, because they look to provide a thick description of factors determining individuals, groups or a situation, describing its functions and characteristics.
This study is composed by three parts, in which a first step is to review the literature on PV education in schools, with the aim of using the findings from that review to further elaborate the conceptual framework and inform the interviews with study participants. The second step will be to conduct ten to fifteen qualitative in-depth interviews with teachers and program managers from VT Schools. During a third stage, the researcher will conduct three to four focus groups of approximately six participants in each group. The participants will be members of the Advisory Boards from selected schools which have successfully implemented PV education in their curriculums, with the goal of gaining understanding about the adoption process and their capacity to push innovative contents in VT schools’ electricity programs.
In order to identify participants and set up interviews, the researcher will explore the database of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and perform an online search of VT schools advertising PV education within their electricity programs. Additional interviews may also be selected out of the recommendations from participants who are knowledgeable about the field (Weiss, 1994).
The participants will be part of a purposeful selection of five to ten schools that advertise teaching PV contents and five to ten schools that do not advertise teaching PV contents in the Western districts of the state of Massachusetts. An initial search using only Internet search engines has detected four schools teaching PV education and twelve not offering it yet. The rationale behind the selection of this area is the relative higher population in comparison to the West of the state, and the limited resources for traveling and interviewing that the researcher might face. This could be a preliminary research, later to be complemented by a larger study that includes all VT schools in the state of Massachusetts.
Interviews and focus groups will take place at the schools where the participant are affiliated or at a place that is convenient to the study participant. For the focus groups with Advisory Boards, the researcher will request permission to use time to during their meetings, which normally take place twice a year.
Participant recruitment strategies
The researcher will personally contact individuals to be interviewed. Interviews will preferably be in-person, or via phone if necessary. School teachers and managers already interviewed could help in the initial contact of further participants. No monetary incentives will be offered for participation in the study, however, the researcher might contribute with refreshments during Advisory Meetings where the focus groups will be conducted.
According to the suggested research procedure, secondary data collection will be performed by reviewingacademic publications on PV education implementation in the U.S. and other countries; resources from the Solar Training Network initiative from the U.S. Department of Energy’s State Energy Program (SEP); individual cases from schools affiliated to the Solar Schools Generation 180 network; information from the Boston chapter of the National Energy Education Development Project (NEED); evaluation reports from The New Energy Education program from the State of Massachusetts’ Department of Energy Resources; and other sources that may be suggested by experts, participants, or the same literature while being reviewed.
For the primary data collection, the number of interviews will vary according to the information being processed, or until the researcher estimates that a saturation point has been reached (Weiss, 1994). For the case of individual informants, the interviews will be qualitative, with an open interview guide that includes the lines of inquiry. The questions developed for the interview will be further informed by the literature review and designed to explore teachers and managers’ experience with PV education in their schools, and the challenges both participants from schools offering and not offering PV education have faced. All interviews and focus groups will be audio recorded and transcribed. In addition, observational notes will be taken during all interviews and focus groups.
In line with the framework provided by the Diffusion Model, the lines of inquiry for schools not advertising PV education will be the perception of teachers and managers about the factors affecting PV education adoption in VT schools; theinfluence of external organizations, such as colleges or business, in curricular innovation; current or previous recommendations or incentives from federal or state energy policy promoting PV education; and, for applicable cases, perceived reasons why previous attempts to incorporate PV education have failed.
The lines of inquiry for schools advertising PV education will be the details of the process for adopting PV education; the role played by external organizations in terms of support (equipment or expertise) or any other influence for the adoption of PV education; any connection to federal or state energy policy that was key for the adoption of PV education; andfeedback received from the school community since the implementation of the program.For both types of school, there is a line of inquiry that will examine the perception from teachers and managers about the current status and future of PV technology.
In the case of the focus groups, the questions will also be qualitative and open ended, and focused on the conditions and processes influencing PV education adoption that have occurred within the electricity programs of VT schools (Rossman and Rallis, 2012).
Since these interviews will be open-ended, there will be some variation on these questions across participants, but they will remain of the same type. The interviews or focus groups will be approximately 60 minutes in length and, if necessary, follow-up communications may be carried out in order to clarify any outstanding questions.
Alongside focus groups, observations of Advisory Board meetings will be conducted, and field notes will be taken. The participants must provide the researcher with permission to observe these events. The purpose of these observations is to gain contextual information to help with the understanding of the interview material (Weiss, 1994). The researcher will not share field notes with other scholars or individuals external to the study, and it is not expected to include observational material in published material.
Data from participants’ interviews and focus groups will be reviewed by the researcher, and then coded using the qualitative software package MaxQDA, with the aim of linking collected data to codes that are drawn from the conceptual framework and new insights appearing throughout the transcripts of the interviews, in addition to combining and relating categories (Rossman and Rallis, 2012). The approach to be used will be “issue-focused”, as the study will deal with the issues as learned from the respondents and moving from the discussion of issues in a certain area to the discussion of issues in terms of other areas (Weiss, 1994).
Regarding the level of generalization, and according to the information disclosed in the interviews and the focus group, the researcher will decide whether it is possible to escalate from the level of the concrete until the level of the general (Weiss, 1994). In the meantime, the approach to be taken will be that of producing a generalized issue-focused report.
In general, analysis and interpretation will be done through a process in which the researcher attaches significance to the findings by making meaning of them in relation to the conceptual framework. Through this process, which involves reflective discrimination of what is essential and what is not, the information and lived experiences collected in the field are processed and conveyed to the reader through thick descriptions (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994). The objective is to provide enough details, explanations, lessons, and connections in order to clarify the identified processes and build an argument (Rossman and Rallis, 2012).
The researcher will aggregate interview and focus group data by using the software, in order to identify key themes and lessons. Within this process, the explanations and conclusions drawn from interviews and focus groups will be compared and contrasted, which means identifying similarities and differences that can be helpful to assess credibility, usefulness, and centrality of the accounts (Rossman and Rallis, 2012).
By reconsidering the initial questions that motivated the research and the way different data and subsequent analysis and findings have dealt with them (Weiss, 1994), the researcher will proceed to structure a report. The researcher will decide, according to the characteristics of the data from different sources, whether the report will begin highlighting concrete cases or will go from the general to the particularities of the process. In the same vein, the possibility for the researcher to enter as a figure in the report –narrating the process of understanding– will be determined throughout the data analysis and taking into account the audience this information is likely to reach in each of the formats it will be elaborated (Weiss, 1994). The findings of the report will be shared with participants and published in academic papers or other formats.
Validity and ethical considerations of the study
Triangulation represents a validity procedure that looks for convergence among sources by looking for complementary information, at the same time creating opportunities to reveal divergent information that may need follow-up clarification (Creswell and Miller, 2000).
Denzin (2017) identifies four types of triangulation that can help increase the validity of a study, in terms of 1) data; 2) investigators; 3) theory; and 4) methodology.
Data triangulation will be achieved by integrating the opinion of different individuals teaching PV education, but also from school managers and other members of the school community, including external organizations influencing the school’s internal policies and contents. The idea is to have a broad perspective that allows comparing and contrasting.
Investigator triangulation will be approached through a plan to engage in a prolonged relationship with other members of academia helping schools adopt renewable energy, principally in the West coast of the U.S., and members of VT schools aspiring to rapidly implement PV education. The researcher counts with experience creating communities of theory and practice, having already secured the support of the Community Innovators Laboratory (CoLab) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to convene electricity teachers and other influential actors for the adoption of PV education in VT schools for them to visit MIT labs and be introduced to cutting edge research in renewable energy. The researcher is currently a fellow at CoLab, and the assumption is that this engagement will also provide the space for the emergence of other validity means such as member checking and peer debriefing.
Triangulation of theories will be evaluated throughout the literature review, with the hope of developing a more comprehensive framework that draws from existing theories in the field of education. Finally, triangulation in terms of methods will include, as stated in the procedure, literature review, interviewing, focus group and observations of the context where PV education is being adopted. This will be done with the aim of confirming, complementing, and disconfirming evidence (Miles and Huberman, 1994).
During the study, it is likely that the researcher will make transcripts of interviews and focus groups available to the participants, in order to increase validity (Creswell and Miller, 2000).
Regarding ethical considerations, it is not anticipated that participating in interviews will pose risks above than those associated with everyday living. Participants will be advised that they are free to decline any question and are free to withdraw their participation at any time without penalty. All participants will be required to read and sign the appropriate informed consent form before participating, which will include the request for permission to observe and participate in Advisory Board meetings. For this proposal, no vulnerable populations are expected to be included in this study.
Figure 1. Conceptual Map
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