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Energy Hawks research group brings together students from many different majors

From left; John Gonzalez, law school student; Meghan Taunton, geological engineering and economics student; Thomas Erickson, head of the EERC; Stephanie Weigel, an experimental psychology doctoral student and Charlene Crocker, coordinator of the Energy Hawks program take a break at the Scanning Electron Microscope lab at the EERC this week. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A new program at the EERC is bringing together UND students from across campus and across disciplines to better understand North Dakota’s energy landscape.

The group of 10 undergraduate and graduate students, known as the Energy Hawks, are spending their summer as employees of the EERC, where they work collaboratively on research about the energy industry. The students come from different backgrounds, from engineering to political science to the law school.

Tom Erickson, head of the EERC, said the idea for Energy Hawks started off as a conversation about how research could become more multidisciplinary. The provost’s office and the vice president for research are providing funding for the program, Erickson said.

“What we created here was not just put a bunch of engineers in a room who wouldn’t talk to each other, but to truly look at problems from a multidisciplinary viewpoint and I think in the first six weeks of the program it has certainly been obvious that that has been a success,” Erickson said.

While the students are focused on energy, Erickson said it’s about more than how to properly drill a hole into the ground and ways to extract oil or how to burn coal better, adding that the energy industry affects many different facets of the state. The group wants to figure out how to find value in every aspect they can.

The research is entirely student-led, which is a special aspect for student workers at the EERC, Charlene Crocker, coordinator of the Energy Hawks, said.

“I’m here to support them and to connect them to people as needed, but they also take the initiative and connect people themselves and have Tom help them with that as well,” she said.

As a part of the group’s 10-week, paid summer internship they headed out to western North Dakota to tour a drilling rig, midstream gas processing plant, coal mine, power plants, a wind farm, and other spots to get a crash course in the energy world. The Energy Hawks also met with state and local leaders in the industry, including Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, city leaders in Watford City and members of the state Public Service Commission. All of this was done in just one week.

“We covered a lot of miles around the state and saw a lot of different aspects of the energy industry, not just oil and gas, not just coal,” said Meghan Taunton, a geological engineering and economics double major.

Stephanie Weigel, an experimental psychology doctoral student, said the crash course helped everyone learn more about the industry and gave them a chance to come up with more thorough ideas for what research they’d like to do.

Many of the students, both graduate and undergraduate, came into the program with little to no background in energy. The students’ majors include engineering, chemistry, environmental studies, law, political science, history, economics, business and psychology.

“I guess it really boils down to figuring out the bigger picture of what we can all bring to the table,” John Gonzalez, a law student, said.

If Weigel has a question about translating a law into layman's terms she doesn’t have to pick up a phone to call an area lawyer, she can simply look over at one of her colleagues for help. Taunton said the collaborative work also helps eliminate competition among them and allows for more open discussions about topics.

“Everything that (Gonzalez) brings to the table is beneficial and helpful for me and vice versa,” Taunton said. “So, we kind of just make this super team.”

Gonzalez said for him it was about more than just looking at the industry from a legal perspective, but seeing how it affects everything and everyone.

Even the simple question of how to get workers to fill open positions in the state has a complex and layered answer, Gonzalez said, noting that it’s going to take the education and legal systems, businesses and workforce development groups all working together to solve problems. Through their discussions while traveling around the state, Gonzalez said the collaborative efforts don’t seem to happen as much as everyone would like to see.

“There are communication issues,” he said. “There are still issues but it’s way better than what I thought it was going out there the first time.”

There is “excitement” from people outside of the university about the Energy Hawks and their work, Erickson said. He said they hope to continue the program going forward.

“People outside of this organization, they’re excited about this and I think they see a tremendous opportunity here to utilize this talent in a different way to serve the state of North Dakota,” he said.

Gonzalez said he wants to continue the ideas the Energy Hawks have come up with further than just a 10-week internship.

“I want to see how far this idea can grow,” he said. “Maybe we’re not the only Energy Hawk group. Maybe this will just be the foundation or the start of something even bigger.”

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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