Milagro Manzanares wanted to be an architect when she first began taking classes at Tri-Tech Skills Center, she said.
The Southridge High School senior enrolled in some construction trade courses and began learning about alternative energy and green building practices. She and several other students are designing solar-powered cookers that could help communities in developing countries.
Now Milagro, 17, wants to work as a construction manager or engineer.
"This has opened several doors for me," she said.
Teachers and staff at Tri-Tech, keen to student interest in sustainable building, are hoping to draw more students like Milagro to their program. And they recently got a new tool -- a large solar panel on the school's campus in west Kennewick.
The solar panel, paid for by a grant, provides power to the school, but students haven't had the opportunity to work with it yet. School officials hope it will serve as a lure for students as part of a diverse building and engineering curriculum.
Instructor Tony Milewski began incorporating sustainable building into his classes several years ago, he said. Students loved it and he began bringing in new elements each year.
"Everything about it is teamwork and thinking and making their math skills come alive," Milewski said.
Solar power has been a big part of the interest in the class. A group of students last year built a scaled-down home which used solar power to provide electricity and hot water. The project took several honors at the 2013 Imagine Tomorrow competition at Washington State University at Pullman.
This year, along with the solar-powered cookers, another group of students is working on a solar-powered shower for the homeless.
"I never thought I'd be working with solar," said Alexa Castellanos, 16, a Pasco High School junior who came to Tri-Tech interested in home building.
Milewski looked for more ways to augment his courses and was encouraged to apply to the Solar 4R Schools program. Developed by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the program provides science kits and other materials for teachers and students but also grants for solar arrays.
Tri-Tech chipped in $20,000 and agreed to maintain the solar panel in exchange for the program providing $75,000 for its installation. The array, installed by Hire Electric Inc. of The Dalles, went online only recently and is currently pumping about 3 kilowatts of power into the school.
The goal is to have the solar panel become the cornerstone of a standalone renewable energy program at Tri-Tech, said Vice Principal Lisa McKinney. Current students have enjoyed observing its movements as it tracks the sun and eventually they'll be able to learn how the array is programmed and adjusts to weather conditions.
The device is already turning the heads of visitors and prospective students.
"We just had three days of tours," McKinney said. "Half the kids noticed the thing and the teachers commented on it. It's doing what it's supposed to do."
It could be years or decades before solar power becomes a dominant power source, said Austin Wolley, 17, a Connell High School junior. But he and other students said they're glad to be getting a foothold in the area and that Tri-Tech is working to help the students who come after them.
"We're leading the way to the future," said Jose Anguiano, 17, a Kamiakin High School senior.
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