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Grand Challenge Scholar Celina Wilkerson: Make Solar Energy More Economical

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Aurora VanDam

Ritchie School Student Reporter

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Electrical engineering senior, Celina Wilkerson, is among the students in the first cohort of the Grand Challenge Scholars program (GCS) at the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science. She chose the challenge “Make Solar Energy More Economical” out of 14 total Grand Challenges that are all committed to making the world a better and more sustainable place. 

The Grand Challenge program through The University of Denver (DU) allows students to work in teams addressing a chosen grand challenge. In 2008, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) identified 14 “grand challenges” to solve in the 21st century. To become a grand challenge scholar, students must fill out an application, as well as enroll in the Engineering Connections Seminar (ENGR 1511) at DU.

In high school, Wilkerson had the chance to visit her uncle where he worked at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. She fell in love. On that day she knew she wanted to work in the world of renewables. Wilkerson knew right away that the solar energy challenge would be the perfect fit for her.  

Wilkerson worked a summer on the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (REU) with Professor Amin Khodaei, PhD, as her mentor. It was here she was able to deepen her understanding of renewable energy systems. During her summer with REU and in accordance with the Grand Challenges program, she modeled a solar panel and battery system and worked to optimize solutions for homes in Denver. Wilkerson was able to attend a nationwide Grand Challenges conference in Washington D.C. along with one other student where they networked with other schools in the program and found ways to run the DU GCS program more efficiently. 

The GCS program requires a community service aspect, so Wilkerson went full circle and ended up by chance back at her high school. She worked alongside a new engineering teacher as a mentor to kids interested in engineering, making an emphasis on being a woman in field and the importance of working in renewable energy. 

Due to Wilkerson’s experience with GCS and REU, she had the experience to research solar and renewable energy at the University of Tennessee for 8 weeks. Shortly after this, she landed an internship with Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories where she has been working for over a year now. Through all of these incredible experiences, Wilkerson said, “it was nice to finally apply my schoolwork to the real world…[GCS] definitely helped to advance my career.” 

For anyone considering joining the GCS program, Wilkerson urges students to “just take the leap. You never know where it’s going to take you. It’s really helped me grow as a person and learn to make connections.”