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Training & Education

Back in session

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Northeast Wisconsin Technical College has reduced class sizes to mitigate COVID-19 exposure.

With no end in sight for COVID-19, educators are getting creative

October 2020 - As students gathered at campuses around the country, some schools were forced to close down in-person instruction just days into the fall term. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to force educators to rethink syllabi, including how to use remote teaching tools and software to provide students with a fulfilling experience. Educators are adjusting, postponing or attempting to combine remote methods and in-person instruction for skills that cannot be learned over a screen and a WiFi connection.

When the virus first struck, many workplaces and schools shifted to remote work/instruction. Some faculty at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, used Zoom or Google Hangouts applications to conduct classes and communicate but that option did not always prove accommodating to all students.

“I personally tried not to teach with a Zoom meeting,” says Mark Prosser, assistant professor in Ferris State’s welding engineering technology department. “Our campus is in a rural setting and some students live in areas where internet is not always reliable.”

Ferris State students are taught to weld but they also learn material strengths, metallurgy, weld joint designs, automation, advanced processes, cost analysis, procedure development, etc.

“Some components of this can be taught online but it all starts with hands-on skills,” Prosser explains. “Developing the necessary eye-hand coordination, muscle memory and the physical attributes necessary to make a competent weld can only be done in a lab. It’s no different from learning to shoot a basketball or swing a golf club. There is no way to develop that skill without doing it.”

Unlike hands-on tasks, curriculum around theory is easier to transition online. Where state restrictions limit in-person instruction, some classes must be postponed until in-person instruction is possible.

“This fall, we’re offering online classes for our most basic courses like intro to welding, metallurgy; courses that build the foundation of knowledge but come before the more advanced welding classes,” says Jose Bueno, adjunct welding professor at American River College in Sacramento, California.

“Metalworking along with welding require two different components: theory and skill,” Prosser says. “These cannot be grouped as one thing. One cannot take the place of the other and one is not more important than the other. The two subjects work together.”

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NWTC is balancing student density at any one time on campus, while maintaining hands-on learning.

Hybrid sessions

At Ferris State, students practice on several virtual welding machines in the lab. Each lab has a large-screen TV to view video lectures and welding camera demonstrations. “This enables us to present a concept or perform a demonstration, and each student can see the demo on the big screen instead of only the students standing closest to the instructor.

“The catch to video presentations,” Prosser continues, “is that training videos are challenging to produce and require practice. Anyone can make a video presenting a concept, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good. Videos can be very effective if done correctly.”

When creating demonstration videos, Bueno says it was important for American River College instructors to consider the types of information they believe prepare students for more advanced classes when in-person sessions resume.

“I wanted students to have a bit more knowledge and experience about what they’re looking for, about what a weld looks like under the hood,” Bueno says. “We made some of our own demos and created a YouTube channel so students can build their familiarization with what a weld even looks like because they won’t be able to see it in person at first. Things like flaws, [close-ups of] porosity, cracks, etc.”

There are limits to what can be shared online. Some of the virtual weld programs must be conducted in a lab. “The licensing is matched to an IP address, like for our weld inspection class,” Bueno says. “Our students’ personal computer IP addresses don’t match so we had to postpone that course.”

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American River College offers basic courses that help build a foundation, including Intro to Welding and Metallurgy.

Teaching methods

When Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, stopped in-person classes last spring, the move to virtual was abrupt. “There is was little time to offset the missing hands-on element,” says Daren Davis, senior instructor. “In a materials testing class, students told the instructor over Zoom how to test the specimens. The students could watch as the instructor conducted testing.”

Currently, Tarleton is operating in a “hyflex” mode, with face-to-face synchronous Zoom and asynchronous recorded videos for lectures. “Our labs are face to face unless a student has an underlying condition that would prohibit them from attending,” Davis says. “In addition to our normal PPE, we will wear masks, socially distance in labs as much as possible, and disinfect at the beginning and end of each lab session.”

Last summer, instructors worked on transitioning lessons into video or other forms of online communication in preparation for the fall session. “We just expanded our licensing to be able to use Hobart demonstration videos, for example,” American River’s Bueno says. “We’ve had to get creative. We’re planning on extra quizzes and online discussion boards, inviting students to post questions on any topic we’re covering. That way it’s not only the instructors talking.”

Having students interact and discuss topics among themselves adds depth to the learning experience. Where some students might feel reluctant to raise a question in the classroom, they now can type out questions or answers to discuss with their fellow students in a forum.

“Online forums among students have sparked some good discussion,” Bueno says. “And students who might not feel comfortable raising their hand in an in-person classroom setting are able to contribute.”

At Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas, classes are set up as a hybrid mode of in-person lab work instruction and online textbook assignments. “We are observing CDC health practices such as checking for fever or other symptoms and asking about any possible exposure to COVID-19,” says Joe Price, welding coordinator and instructor. Students are required to wear masks and clean machines after each use.

“We use a learning program called Schoology, an interactive system,” Price says. “I can monitor students’ progress and they can ask questions. It is possible to check how much time a student is spending on the assignments as well as analyze their progress.”

Hill hasn’t used Zoom or Google meetings to conduct lessons. “I look for good feedback after explaining a topic, like clear responses. It’s more difficult to get all of this feedback online and takes more time when using an online platform,” he says.

Hands-on and lab-based classes are being held on the Green Bay, Wisconsin, campus of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College this fall. “It’s impossible to learn how to weld simply from watching a video,” says Jeff Rafn, PhD, president of NWTC. The lecture portion of instruction will be delivered through web conferencing.

“Fortunately, the college had the last eight weeks of the spring semester to try new approaches and a summer to develop and refine the selected learning delivery strategies for fall courses,” Rafn says.

NWTC worked to reduce class sizes to mitigate COVID-19 exposure. “We need to reduce the student density at any one time on the campus,” Rafn says. “The challenge is maximizing remote learning while maintaining the essence of a technical college—which is hands-on learning.”

Classes at Purdue University Northwest (PNW), Hammond, Indiana, were canceled over the summer but in-person instruction resumed in the fall. “Students doing design work move much more quickly when an instructor can look over their shoulder and make suggestions,” says Rick R. Rickerson, laboratory administrator. “The same goes for CAM programming.”

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Purdue University Northwest conducts in-person labs in groups of 15 or less while also using Brightspace and Zoom online.

Lab work

As of early August, PNW planned to teach labs in groups of 15 or less while also adopting technologies such as Brightspace and Zoom for virtual communication. “Manufacturing can’t be taught online,” says James B. Higly, professor of mechanical engineering technology at PNW. “That requires hands-on experience.”

Tulsa Welding School in Oklahoma emphasizes learning by experience but is limiting in-person campus instruction. TWS created online courses that include the same information that would be learned in the classroom.

“The in-person component is key for every student to excel in the workplace post-graduation, so we needed to ensure we could still provide hands-on lab time but minimize the in-person classroom portion of training,” says Chris Schuler, director of training.

Across its three locations, TWS is using YouTube training videos as well as BlueJeans video conferencing for virtual face-to-face instruction.

“By implementing online learning and not postponing training programs, students are able to complete their education on time and not delay graduation,” Schuler says. “A challenge to online learning is limited accessibility to in-person training. Hands-on lab time is critical for skilled trades education.”

Instructional videos are good supplements, but hands-on training is key for many fabrication processes in order for students to gain confidence in their abilities. “Our didactic curriculum lent itself best for virtual training, combined with online access to instructors for interactive instruction,” Schuler says.

Subjects of interest include automation integration into traditional fabrication methods, CNC plasma cutting, waterjet cutting, robotic welding and programmable bending machines. Class sizes have been reduced.

“The downfall to smaller classes coupled with social distancing is often students learn from students and knowledge sharing is lost,” Rickerson says. “Hands-on skill sets can be shown with virtual inputs, but until the student physically attempts a skill set, we cannot truly evaluate them.”

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Pandemic or not, skilled trades labor is in demand. “Companies and schools are working to increase awareness around the lucrative industry,” says Tulsa Welding School’s Chris Schuler.

Desire to build

Despite challenges brought on by COVID-19, American River College’s Bueno says the interest in learning fabrication continues. “Our class wait lists are full. We normally have students show up on the first day of class hoping to fill any seats available,” he says.

Ferris State’s Prosser says students are signing up for fabrication courses with the desire to build. Instruction covers numerous areas requiring in-person instruction, including heavy plate, tubing, thin-gauge sheet and various alloys.

“This is why skilled trades have been neglected for so long,” Prosser says. “Someone thought theory could somehow take the place of skill and it just can’t. A competent welding engineer or fabricator must possess both of these very valuable attributes.”

When there is high demand for young talent throughout the manufacturing trades, Hill College’s Price finds that more students sign up for fabrication-related studies, which can often lead to hands-on experience in an actual manufacturing setting.

“If there is high demand, a person can go to work as a helper or as an entry-level worker and earn a decent wage while learning some skills,” Price says. “When the economy slows down, I get some of these individuals to come back to the classroom to increase their skill level so they can move on to a better position.”

The majority of students want to weld on pipelines, power plants or new construction. “Our students go on to the local fabrication businesses as well,” Price says. “We are fortunate to have a diverse and active local industry.”

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Tarleton State University is operating in a “hyflex” mode, with face-to-face synchronous Zoom, in-person labs and asynchronous recorded videos for lectures.

Basic tools

Part of the education process is what happens after a graduate enters the real world seeking employment. Bueno and other instructors listen to feedback from potential employers, including some of the shortcomings employers see when they look into pools of applicants. Sometimes the more mundane or common sense-type capabilities are lacking.

“It’s learning the little—but important—things, like how to use a grinder, read a tape measure, when and how to use eye protection and a face shield because you never know what may pop up under your safety glasses,” Bueno says.

“I’ve had students not know what a chisel is, so I make sure to go over various basic tools you might need to use out in industry. I give small demonstrations and have students practice.”

In preparing students for the manufacturing sector, Rafn says much has changed in the last decade. “Industry 4.0 is about how we change our practices and use information to inform our decision making and to make a better product in a more cost-efficient and effective way,” he adds. “Fabrication and machining aside, businesses are investing in technology. The machines are smarter. We are training students to operate and program this equipment with the emphasis on quality control.”

Each passing month brings with it the continued evolution of off-campus and hands-on instruction, including lending equipment and offering WiFi hot spots as needed. “For those without access to broadband, the college is establishing access through its five remote learning centers,” Rafn says.

Employers increasingly seek a broad skill set in their workers. “Providing students with knowledge and experience in several aspects of the fabrication arts has proven to be effective; our students are securing employment prior to graduation,” Rickerson says.

Despite the pandemic, manufacturing continues to need skilled talent as veteran workers retire. PNW’s Higly advises that those looking to secure a job in the manufacturing sector do whatever they can to learn. “Try to enroll in school and try to find a related job at the same time,” Higly says. “Failing that, there is lots to be learned from YouTube.”

“With the skilled trades labor shortage crisis, companies and schools are working to increase awareness around the lucrative industry,” says TWS’s Schuler. “This has resulted in a newer and younger generation of skilled trade workers eager to begin a new and meaningful career.”

The main goal for Price is to continue working with students in the lab at Hill College. “We are following the recommended COVID-19 practices to keep everyone safe,” he says. “I talk about good hygiene on the job site. A worker can be exposed to unhealthy conditions very easily. Teaching good habits becomes part of their safe mindset.”

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Tarleton State University’s program educates the next generation of manufacturing engineers, production planners, and shop floor supervisors.

Minding statistics

With certain universities attempting in-person classes only to move to remote sessions after spikes in infection, a lot of trust is placed on students. The underlying fear that infection could halt in-person instruction is real. As such, educators must remain flexible.

“We need to design new ways to deliver hands-on experiences in virtual environments,” Tarleton’s Davis says. “These methods could allow [fabrication-related topics] to be delivered in the future to students who are not close to universities or who are working full-time while pursuing degrees.”

Institutions that have put in-person instruction on hold are waiting to see if infection rates decline to allow for regular teaching sessions in spring 2021 (which begin in January). “We are riding the wave to see whether we open back up or not,” Bueno says. “Initially we were planning on hybrid classes until new guidance came down and we shifted to remote classes. We’re pretty optimistic and hoping for a better situation in the spring.”

Throughout the pandemic, TWS has continued to help graduates find jobs. Students are prepared to work within the industry as well as comply when additional skills testing is required. “That shows us that employers not only trust the training but also have a continued demand for skilled workers,” Schuler says. “Employers primarily need entry-level welders who can perform to certain standards and are willing to adapt.” FFJ

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