SPARC-E: Introducing Solar-Powered Technologies in the Classroom and Beyond


Winner – Innovative Use of Technology in the Face-to-Face and Online Classroom

Team Members

Vickie Ratliff – Mountain Empire
Tommy Clements – Mountain Empire
Bryce Shular – Mountain Empire
Roger Greene – Mountain Empire
Paul Gilley – Mountain Empire
Tim Austin – Mountain Empire
Windell Bolling – Mountain Empire



Mountain Empire Community College’s SPARC-E (Solar-Powered Alternative Renewable Clean Energy) unit is a mobile hybrid power station used to demonstrate solar-power technology systems. The goal of the project was to provide experiential learning opportunities to students in industrial technology programs, while also developing a recruitment and educational tool for industrial technology and advanced manufacturing programs. MECC’s welding, industrial electronics, manufacturing, and energy technology students were involved in the design, construction and implementation of SPARC-E, providing a hands-on experience that builds on students’ instructional learning.

SPARC-E utilizes an off-the-grid solar power system, similar to technologies found in home units or public events. The station includes 12 solar modules that are capable of producing approximately 5,000 watts of power. A battery storage unit is used to store the energy produced by the solar array and a back-up generator is also available to supply additional energy when needed. In addition, SPARC-E can be used as a direct power supply for any power grid.

Spectators can walk inside the SPARC-E unit to view the unit’s DC/AC power invertors capable of providing 9000 watts of AC power and the computerized solar-energy control system. SPARC-E also houses MECC’s mobile virtual welder. The solar energy control system and the mobile virtual welder are utilized as recruitment and educational tools during on-campus events, as well as off-campus events such as school career fairs.

SPARC-E serves an additional benefit as an energy provider to community events and potential emergency response assistance. In the fall of 2015, SPARC-E supplied power to two major events at MECC – the Home Craft Days Festival and the Haunted Forest attraction.

Connection to VCCS Mission & Complete 2021

SPARC-E serves as a recruitment tool for potential students in industrial technology and STEM education. The development of the SPARC-E unit provided hands-on experience that lead students to obtain credentials in high-demand fields. Increasing the number of meaningful credentials and supplying a trained, skilled workforce in high-demand fields are the hallmarks of the VCCS Complete 2021 mission.

Applicability Across Disciplines, Units, & Institutions

SPARC-E was a multi-discipline project requiring planning and cooperation between several different technology-based programs, including welding, industrial electronics, manufacturing, and energy technology students. Students were challenged to use problem solve, transforming a small, mobile storage trailer into a solar-powered energy system.

Creative Nature of Project & Connection to Educational Practices

The SPARC-E unit is the first mobile solar-powered system of its kind in Southwest Virginia. The project provided problem-based learning opportunities for students across disciplines, allowing students to apply real-world engineering solutions with marketable applications. In addition, the project serves as a highly visible recruitment tool for MECC’s degree programs as well as an educational tool for the community of the viability of solar and green-powered technologies.

Value Over Time

SPARC-E can be used in the future to generate and power community events and emergency response where power is not easily accessible. These activities include the Remote Area Medical event which provides free health care services to thousands at the Wise County fairground; the Home Craft Days festival, an annual event that brings 20,000 visitors to the Mountain Empire Community College campus; and MECC’s College Knowledge Day, an annual event which allows 900+ high school juniors to visit the campus and explore career opportunities in technical fields. SPARC-E also provides continuous engineering; as equipment and knowledge evolves, MECC students can modify the unit to address emerging technologies. The unit provides a platform for continuous improvement, allowing students to suggest and implement new technologies over time.