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There is a growing awareness in the Roanoke Valley of the impact that technological innovation has on economic competitiveness and the emerging demand for a skilled workforce. At Virginia Western Community College, we are responding to the need by transforming the scale and scope of engineering technician education and training, particularly as it relates to the regional manufacturing industry.

Re-Engineering Technician Education

Within the Roanoke Region, 10 percent of all jobs are in manufacturing (Virginia Labor Market Index). Roanoke has an above-average concentration of electrical equipment, appliance and component manufacturing as well as motor vehicle manufacturing industries (Virginia Employment Commission). Yet, there is a concerning gap between the skills and knowledge of the region’s current and projected workforce and the demands of manufacturing jobs.

Rapidly evolving technology, especially in automation systems within advanced manufacturing, is creating significant changes to the role of engineers. To develop manufacturing technicians who are adaptable, creative and equipped for success, it is imperative that an investment be made to advance the ability of our educators to provide application-based engineering technologies aligned with the direct needs of industry.

Building Capacity for Our Students

Virginia Western has implemented a sustainable educational infrastructure to enhance the capacity of high school and community college faculty to meet the demand for engineering technicians. In 2012, Virginia Western received a nearly $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technology Education (ATE) program to build a pathway for students interested in Mechatronics Engineering Technology.  Mechatronics combines mechanical engineering, electronic engineering and software within a foundational context of manufacturing machinery and systems.

Educators from secondary Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, Virginia Western faculty and leaders in the local manufacturing industry, have come together on the NSF project to advance the Mechatronics pipeline. “Five years ago, as I was talking with CTE teachers, I noticed they were each working on their own island,” said Dan Horine, program head of Mechatronics and project director for the NSF award. “The best way to get the best graduates in Mechatronics is to get the best faculty and CTE teachers and work together to share resources for our students.”

Mechatronics faculty worked closely with CTE teachers in the school systems of Roanoke City, Roanoke County, the City of Salem and Botetourt County, to develop 10 project-based learning (PBL) modules to teach knowledge and hands-on skills in applied interdisciplinary engineering technology. Industry tours provided teachers the opportunity to engage in various processes of operations and learn about manufacturing systems utilized at companies such as Dynex America, Spectrum Design and Plastics One.  “Students are overwhelmed with information.  How do they know what is important?” Horine said.  “With this project we can show relevance.  It’s the benefit of taking tours and partnering with industry.”

Strengthening the Network of Partners

Last year, Virginia Western expanded technician training with an additional grant of almost $800,000 from NSF for the Partnership for Advanced Career Education in Mechatronics Engineering (PACE ME). PACE ME teaches students machining skills to support application-based experiences essential to multiple engineering systems. A new Fab Lab provides students with digital fabrication resources as a platform for their own innovation and inventions. Students will learn the design and fabrication processes needed to be successful in industry.

Once this project is complete in 2017, the network of educators and industry partners working to strengthen the engineering technician pathway will include four additional school systems: Bedford County, Botetourt County, Craig and Franklin County; Blue Ridge Community College and Tidewater Community College; as well as five new industry partners, the first to join being American Electric Power.

The NSF PACE ME project is building connections between industry and educational institutions so we can focus on growing the technician pipeline by aligning engineering competencies, skills and knowledge. Joining with business and industry, local schools and economic partners, we are working to sustain and strengthen the skilled talent pipeline for economic vitality in the Roanoke Region.

By Robert H. Sandel, President of Virginia Western Community College

Published in The Roanoke Times on August 9, 2015