Dr Gamer, Academic Dean, Integrated Technology Division, tells us all about mechatronics education at Western Technical College, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF)
Defining mechatronics- Mechatronics is widely accepted as an interdisciplinary subsection of engineering where both mechanical and electrical concepts overlap. Although the definition is implied simply by the name provided, the area is far more expansive than the name suggests. With the continued implementation of Industry 4.0 (I4) technologies and concepts and the explosive growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices, mechatronics also includes IT, robotics, programming, data control systems, and digital systems. Think of it as the broad umbrella beneath which all design and control functions of an advanced manufacturing plant reside as one example.
A recent roundtable of industry experts worked with Western Technical College to reveal just how expansive mechatronics is becoming. The previously referenced example focused on advanced manufacturing and the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT). It is here that most people can imagine real-world applications of a mechatronics skillset. When we focus in on simply IoT however the real intrigue behind this career area begins to expose itself. Smart sensors and devices, cloud computing, data collection and data analysis, and machine learning all lend themselves to an array of industries well beyond manufacturing. Now retail, transportation/distribution, agriculture, healthcare, hospitality, and many more sectors rely upon the advanced technologies associated with mechatronics.
With mechatronics now poised to play such an important role within our regional and national economies, there is a critical need to provide qualified workers within it. This particular career field faces the typical staffing challenge of a diminishing number of workers available within the labour pool due to retirements, lower reproduction rates or population growth rates, and an overall lack of graduates in the area.
These common challenges faced by all career areas may not be the biggest challenge, however. A challenge unique to this field is recognition and understanding of what it actually entails. With anything new, it takes time for our communities to catch up. This is especially true for recognition but also for broad-scale adoption of new technologies and operating strategies within the industry. Once established, the careers lend themselves well to self-promotion. With wages and demand high, a career becomes much easier to market. That is the case for robotic engineers, electromechanical technicians, and web programmers for example. Data analysts, IT and OT (operational technology) technicians, and IoT system administrators are less common, especially among small businesses. With new career applications continually emerging within the mechatronics field, how then does one get the word out to the future potential workforce and who is responsible to do so? This article would suggest that when the rubber meets the road, both secondary and post-secondary educators, along with employers and industry groups, are all essential.
Building a foundation
Vetted standards and certifications are often where we turn to in order to achieve consistent and reliable outcomes. Cisco, National Institute of Metalworking Standards (NIMS), National Coalition of Certification Centres (NC3), Manufacturing Skills Standards Council (MSSC), and many more capital equipment-specific certifications and conveying bodies exist. When it comes to the area of mechatronics, specifically Industry 4.0 and the convergence of IT and OT, the marketplace is fairly empty.
When Western Technical College first received their NSF grant in 2018 to build a mechatronics pipeline through new program development, aligned industry partnerships, and workforce experiences, no standards existed. With a goal of building an academic program which would then create a path from secondary school, to the technical college, to a four-year university (K-20), Western had no defined and vetted industry standards to pull from. Then in late 2018, the Smart Automation Certification Alliance (SACA) was established with a goal to bring industry certifications for connected systems which form the needed skills of an Industry 4.0 employee. Through the work of SACA, three levels of credentials were developed with separate sub-levels and micro-credentials. Having this broadly vetted framework in hand, educators and industry leaders now have a foundation from which to begin speaking a common language when conveying where the labour force is headed in terms of essential skills. If you do a quick search of various educational programs for mechatronics, you will likely see the term being used in many different ways. Programs often focus on one or two areas but seldom bring all components together. What is electrical engineering technology to one program is mechatronics to another. With so much confusion within the offerings, it is easy to understand how students and guidance counsellors have difficulty in understanding what the careers actually are.
A recent survey of five secondary schools involving more than 100 students revealed that 56% of them had either no or slight awareness of what Industry 4.0 was. The most significant piece to this is that these were students who were currently enrolled in and attending the early stages of a mechatronics course in high school. The results were not surprising however it begs the question of how did they become interested in the courses then to begin with? The answer to this can be found in how Western’s NSF grant work in mechatronics was structured. That is where we will look next.
Western Technical College used the SACA framework to revise their curriculum in order to embed the entry-level components of the certifications in all three of their associated programs. With this in place, work began to establish dual or transcript credit so that students could earn the credits while in high school. Enter now a unique and innovative group of secondary schools and a local employer committed to ensuring a future pipeline of trained employees. Rural school districts often struggle with hiring qualified Career and Technical Education teachers (CTE). While the geographic area of these schools tend to be large, the overall student population is low. Creating and maintaining labs to support the offering of high technology programs is then challenging and cost-prohibitive at times. Each independent school cannot possibly offer everything and replicate what others have because the model isn’t sustainable. The school districts of Whitehall, Independence, Arcadia, and Blair Taylor, which comprise three different counties, decided to leverage their combined resources and entered into an agreement to form a cooperative of high schools.
Under this agreement, the Trempealeau Valley Cooperative (TVC 2.0) went to a common bell schedule. This allows each school to operate classes utilising the same timeslots which opens the door to students from all institutions taking shared courses. Now the population to draw from increases, making it more cost-effective to offer a specific course. The TVC 2.0 also hired a joint teacher who had a high-level of knowledge in the area of Industry 4.0. The teacher then partnered with Western to be certified to offer dual enrolment courses. The last hurdle then became access to equipment and a way to serve multiple schools without duplicating lab spaces. This is where the employer support comes in.
Within a short distance of Western Technical College and the TVC 2.0 schools, the world largest furniture manufacturer is headquartered in the small town of Arcadia Wisconsin. Ashley Furniture Industries is one of the largest employers in Western Wisconsin and employs over 30,000 people globally. They long ago recognised that in order to stay competitive and continue to lead the market, they needed to invest in their current workforce, their operational technology, and be an active player in the building of a pipeline of skilled talent, and have always been committed to helping their community. After leaders attended one of many furniture manufacturing tradeshows in Germany, they recognised that Industry 4.0 technologies would soon become commonplace and that they needed to incorporate these concepts into their production operations. Operationalising this would be challenging without a properly trained workforce. As their manufacturing processes became more complex they began researching education and helped leaders within higher education institutions to see the importance of IIOT and Industry 4.0 to the continued vibrancy of the local economies. Shortly thereafter they invested significantly in the development of a Mobile Skills Lab (MSL). The MSL is a state of the art, 900 square foot training lab on wheels and contains equipment for learning smart sensors, PLC’s, robotics, and general AC/DC. The lab itself travels between the four schools within the TVC 2.0 and the shared teacher delivers his dual credit courses within it.
In order to expand upon the dual credit opportunities which currently exist, access to a larger pool of teachers is needed. The initial investment of a full-time, shared position creates the baseline of opportunity however the overall struggle of recruiting and retaining qualified teachers in secondary schools remains. One way to alleviate this issue is by partnering with current technicians employed by local companies. These individuals often hold the educational credentials related to the subject matter and they also possess the hands-on application or experience often missing by a traditionally educated teacher.
Tapping into this pool of candidates to teach on a part-time or adjunct basis not only helps to increase the access to qualified teachers, but it also creates a strong connection between the current employer and the future employees. When institutions of higher education can support the development of the industry adjuncts, they, in turn, increase the opportunities to expand the dual enrolment within their districts. This creates a partnership which truly benefits all parties involved and better serves our communities.
Bringing it all together
The final missing piece of Western Technical College’s NSF grant objectives was to ensure that students who now started their courses in high school could eventually transfer their credits towards a bachelor’s degree in Engineering Technology – Automation. To accomplish this, they partnered with the University of Wisconsin Stout and students may now complete a bachelor’s degree within two years upon graduating from their local technical college.
Innovation and a determination to create a new model of education within the region resulted in greater opportunities to fulfil the workforce need in the area of mechatronics. Students are exposed to modern technology which is directly aligned with future employment opportunities resulting in a willingness to try academic coursework in the area without fully understanding what it means going in. With clearly identified pathways to specific careers and future educational goals, marketing of mechatronics to secondary school counsellors, students, and parents become much easier than when the area was ambiguous. To successfully execute a project like this, the support and participation of employers alongside secondary and post-secondary institutions are essential. The local communities and businesses rely upon cooperation such as this to ensure vibrancy and continued growth for all who call the area home. Developing career and college ready graduates is a task for everyone.
This material is based upon work which is supported by the National Science Foundation under grant no. 1801063. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National
For more information on the project, please contact Dr. Gamer at GamerJ@westerntc.edu
Please note: This is a commercial profile
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