Reaching rural students to train on new technologies

Eric Wooldridge, professor of advanced manufacturing at Somerset Community College, discusses the college’s partnership with Tennessee Technological University to launch a mobile additive manufacturing platform to train high school teachers and students in 3-D printing. (All photos: Event Photography of North America Corp.)

Rural high school teachers and their students are learning new workplace technologies through innovative distant and mobile learning platforms developed by community college educators with Advanced Technological Education grants from the National Science Foundation.

In rural Minnesota and central Nebraska, two community colleges partnered to teach mechatronics — which combines electronics with mechanical engineering — to students who take the college courses in their high school with support from teachers who serve as on-site facilitators.

Another pair of community colleges joined forces to teach additive manufacturing – also known as 3D printing – to high school teachers and students in the Appalachian region of south-central Kentucky and north central Tennessee.

Both sets of colleges report strong results from their programs.

South Central College (SCC) in Minnesota and Central Community College (CCC) in Nebraska developed their distant-learning model for students enrolled in rural high schools. It provides students with hands-on training, web-based classroom instruction from community college faculty, and dual college and high school credit.

“We needed it because industry said they needed people trained in this area,” Doug Pauley, associate dean of training and development, at CCC, told people at a session of the recent 2023 Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigators’ Conference. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) hosted the weeklong conference in Washington, D.C. with National Science Foundation (NSF) support.

Presenting opportunities

Students who complete the program often get clean, high-paying jobs as maintenance technicians across a wide range of industries, including medical device manufacturing, food processing and metal fabrication, Pauley said. Industries have such a great need for workers that they sometimes even fund the equipment needed to train students and cover some of their tuition and fees, Pauley said.

The program started four years ago with about 120 students from central Nebraska high schools, Pauley said. In Minnesota, where “our schools are in very rural farming communities” about 75 miles from the South Central’s main campus, about 75 students joined the program’s first year,  said mechatronics instructor Doug Laven.

Pauley said enrollment in the CCC program since increased by about 30% to 40%. One of its key successes is that it opens high school students’ eyes to a career that they might otherwise not know exists, he said.

Dan Davidchik, a Central Community College process instrumentation and control instructor, answers a question about the distant-learning program to teach mechatronics to high school students.

The first step in creating this new pathway from rural high schools into mechatronics careers was to adapt the curriculum to create core courses that could be rolled out to high schools, said process instrumentation and control instructor Dan Davidchik. Each high school also had to commit to provide a teacher to serve as an on-site facilitator, he added.

Students are attracted to the hands-on work, which includes assembling trainers on their own from a kit in the first class, Laven said. Students take four courses over two years and earn dual credit from both the high school and community college.

Shifting gears on 3D

In a separate presentation at the conference, Somerset Community College (Kentucky) and Tennessee Technological University faculty explained how they forged a partnership five years ago with ATE grant support. Their goal was to teach additive manufacturing (AM) —  also known as 3D printing — to high school teachers and students to expand the region’s manufacturing workforce.

They developed a Mobile Additive Manufacturing Platform, which mainly consists of a 20-foot trailer equipped with 3D printers, to take to high schools, said Ismail Fidan, professor of manufacturing technology at Tennessee Tech. When Covid hit and schools went into lockdown, the trailer was parked.  

The faculty responded by designing a remote 16-week, college-level course for high school teachers. They also shipped 3D printers to teachers so they could follow along with the remote lessons and do the hands-on exercises, said Eric Wooldridge, professor of advanced manufacturing at Somerset.

Teachers who completed the course were then able to teach additive manufacturing to their students, who could earn both college and high school credit for the course and a certificate, he said. Since the pandemic lockdowns ended, the trailer has gone back on the road for more in-person instruction in remote locations.

“We moved away from 3D printers being used to making key chains and trinkets to making manufacturing-looking parts (and) aerospace-looking parts,” Wooldridge said.

To date, 166 teachers have completed the intensive professional development provided with ATE grant support.

A low-cost model

In Kentucky, the program is in 121 schools and more than 3,100 students are either additive-manufacturing-literate or have had some exposure to AM. The courses are now available to every high school in Kentucky, Wooldridge said.

“The reason it is working is because we built it on a low-cost model,” Wooldridge explained.

He said college faculty members continue to control course content through a single point location so that any new research or technology they believe Kentuckians need can be updated simply by changing a module.

“We now have the ability to lead the entire industry well ahead of anyone else so we will never be behind,” Wooldridge said. “We can put this technology in the poorest of communities and the richest of the richest.”

Wooldridge said they intend to use the same approach to teach artificial intelligence skill sets in high schools.

“Overall, this was a success and I would encourage all of you to consider using this mobile learning platform,” said George Chitiyo, the project’s evaluator and a professor of educational research and evaluation at Tennessee Tech’s College of Education.

About the Author

Kathryn Marchocki
Kathryn Marchocki is an award-winning journalist based in New England.
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