June 5, 2023

Hartzell Hall experiments with virtual learning

NCC’s Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) lab has ample work stations ready for use. Photo by Amaris Rodriguez.

Hartzell Technology Hall has turned its eye to virtual learning with its purchase of Automation Studio, which allows students to design and simulate systems across many engineering disciplines like hydraulics, pneumatics and electrical.

Twenty-one software licenses were purchased through the Perkins Grant, a federal fund that prioritizes improving technical education programs.

“We’re trying to figure out the path forward, what the new school is going to look like,” Professor of Electromechanical Technology Robert Wolff said. “The brick-and-mortar school, like everything else, is going to change.”

COVID-19 shut down certain courses with no virtual solutions. Manager of Mechanical Technologies Gary George scoured the web to find virtual solutions, arriving at Automation Studio.

“Social distancing became a little difficult,” George said. “We had to run pneumatic hoses across the floor over to the other side of the room to get enough spacing between the students.”

Allen-Bradley units for hands-on learning, which cost about $27,000, are 5 feet by 6 feet. The limited amount of space and available trainer stations reduce class sizes. Automation Studio provides a cheaper and more accessible option to students, George said.

Virtual simulation eases stress for professors having to watch over many students operating heavy machinery and eliminates repair costs and potential injuries caused by equipment misuse.

“We have a lot of breakage over here. In one night, [students] caused $900 in damages,” George said.

Wolff believes students must get their hands, whether physical or virtual, on tools to learn.

“It’s very difficult to try to teach these skills in a textbook,” Wolff said. “Kind of like the culinary school. You can read about mixing cake, but until you actually do it. …”

For adapting the program to blended learning, Wolff proposed having students use microcontrollers with their PCs so they can do some work at home. He theorized a future where lectures are done online and students come in a few hours a week to do lab work.

“We’re trying to find that balance and meet students’ needs,” Wolff said.

Professors welcomed Automation Studio, although some worried whether students would want to take the time to learn the new software.

“Every one of the disciplines relevant to the Electromechanical program could use [Automation Studio],” George said.
Hartzell Technology Hall is the Main Campus’s home to equipment for Computer-Aided Design, Mechanics, Welding, Electronics and other STEM programs.

Automation students learn to write code for rudimentary operations like flashing lights on and off or rotating a motor – all of which are building blocks to understanding how entire plants work.

Supervisors of NCC’s Electromechanical program are experienced in the field, ensuring their students are ready for real-world pressures.

George formerly made missile fuses for the U.S. Department of Defense before using his engineering skills on Hollywood film sets. Wolff acted as process controls engineer for Air Products & Chemicals for nearly 30 years before coming to NCC.
Despite uncertainty about the future of blended learning at Hartzell Hall, the amount of equipment acquired has been staggering, George said.

“[When I took over the program,] I had a nut and a bolt and they didn’t match each other,” George joked. “The amount of stuff I have purchased on grant funding – I’m flabbergasted.”

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