Southern Cross University’s solar-powered WIL project still producing benefits 10 years on

The Sunflower started as a Work Integrated Learning (WIL) project in 2012 and has since involved over 100 undergraduate and postgraduate students and staff collaboratively working across Visual Arts, Audio Technology Computer Science, Engineering and Environmental Science disciplines.

“The aim of the Sunflower project is to develop a ‘think green’ ethos within the Australian music industry and to promote best practice in solar and alternative power generation and efficient audio-visual technology,” said Dr Barry Hill, lead of the Sunflower project and Senior Lecturer in audio technology and music in SCU’s Contemporary Music program.

Over the years, the Sunflower has had a significant research impact and generated a range of student learning outcomes. The Sunflower has been seen by approximately 500,000 people at dozens of festivals around Australia and has featured on the ABC Science Show, and been the focus of multiple research outputs in creative arts, technology design, solar research, and community education.

The project has used WIL in three ways.  Firstly, as a teambuilding WIL project, giving student academic credit within the core course professional placement unit, the project linked SCU audio technology, visual arts and media undergraduate students with commercial solar tech and engineering partners to develop the design and production elements of the project. The project’s captivating visual design was a result of a design collaboration between postgraduate visual art students and SCU audio technology engineers and researchers.

Secondly, once designed, built and tested, the project took advantage of SCU’s Contemporary Music Program’s focus on community engagement and integration within the Australian Music Industry. This involved creating a real world project opportunity for WIL students to work alongside and under the guidance of industry professionals in delivering a solar powered energy solution and multimedia art installation at major events such as Bluesfest, Vivid Sydney, Splendour in the Grass and Woodford Folk Festival.

Thirdly, while installed at community arts events, SCU student ambassadors have conducted a short anonymous survey, gathering research data on community understanding of electricity and energy.  This part of the project has been investigating whether the broader community understands the science behind the current energy debate. Preliminary results indicate that a large majority of survey respondents do not understand solar electricity household power consumption or energy in general and that the Sunflower Project has given them new and enhanced knowledge of Solar Energy and Battery Storage.

As a technology design prototype the Sunflower has shown that portable diesel generators can be replaced with solar-powered energy systems.  The survey data indicates that community creative arts festivals, can be seen as fulcrum points for building community understanding and awareness of emerging technologies. These sites are important zones of potential for WIL projects that utilise interdisciplinary research themes to inspire positive social change.

Dr Julia Caldicott, WIL researcher at SCU, believes the WIL opportunities afforded by the Sunflower project play an important role in preparing graduates to respond to the challenges of the 21st century by developing their knowledge and capabilities in sustainability (Holdsworth & Thomas 2021).  Arguably, WIL has a vital role to play in sustainability education and is likely to be a focus of future research and practice development (Wall & Hindley, 2019).

WIL students involved in the project commented on the knowledge gained from having to work on a project that unlike traditional university assessments had real world deadlines and budgets.  Working in teams, in sometimes high pressure event production environments, students commented that they felt like they had learned more working on the project at an event than they had over the entire previous two years in the classroom.  

The Sunflower project has shown that WIL projects can incorporate a strong research/teaching nexus and provide the opportunity of achieving multiple positive outcomes.  They offer rich learning environments for students and facilitate the development of innovative creative arts projects and technology prototypes.  They can enhance awareness of the importance of community cultural celebrations in enhancing community  knowledge and a more informed community debate on emerging sustainable energy solutions.

The Sunflower’s work is not done yet!