Apr. 8—Wallace State Community College announced a new addition to its diesel technology program Wednesday that will offer students the opportunity to learn remotely and use virtual reality simulations for a more flexible way to learn their chosen occupation.
Wallace State's Diesel by Distance program will feature hands-on VR simulations that recreate the working environment of a diesel technician or mechanic. In the simulations, developed by immersive learning startup TRANSFR, students will learn, practice and master skills that are essential to the construction, manufacture, repair and maintenance of diesel engine vehicles.
In a Q&A session Wednesday afternoon, a panel of Wallace State personnel and Diesel by Distance partners shared information about the new program and answered a few questions from virtual and in-person audience members.
The panel included Wallace State Diesel Technology Department Chair Jeremy Smith, Wallace State Vice President for Advancement Suzanne Harbin, Alabama Trucking Association President and CEO Mark Colson and was moderated by TRANSFR CEO and founder Bharani Rajakumar.
Smith said Diesel by Distance is a remote-style learning format that will let students get live interaction with an instructor online during set times, but also allows flexibility for them to complete their assignments.
Some students who are quick learners may be able to complete their coursework earlier than the typical four-semester process, while others who may need a little extra time can complete the course over five or six semesters, he said.
"This is a competency-based program where students will learn at their pace," he said.
As part of the program, the students will also use virtual reality to get a feel for the work before heading into the shop to get their hands on the real tools and equipment they will be working with, Smith said.
He said the program is also designed to be completed by students who are already working full-time, so there will be flexible hours for students to receive instruction and feedback from their instructors, and the school's facility will be open on nights and weekends for anyone to come by and get some extra work in.
"This is the most flexible program that I have ever been involved with, and I would have to say that this is probably the most flexible program, as far as diesel technology, in the United States," he said.
Colson said industries are facing a shortage of diesel technicians, and the Diesel by Distance needs to be successful in bringing in students if the state hopes to develop a workforce for the future.
Bringing in more technology-based learning will allow the current generation of students to feel more comfortable in the program and will also allow Wallace State to reach some of the rural populations that may not have been able to take part in the program without the remote learning, he said.
"I really do think that we have to make this successful, and it will be because I have a high level of confidence in all the partners at play here," he said.
To keep pace with new equipment, changing industry standards and a growing percentage of technicians reaching retirement age, the industry will require approximately 200,000 new technicians and mechanics over the next ten years.
According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, employment opportunities in the industry are growing fastest among workers with college-level training. Meanwhile, diesel technology training programs are only producing about 3,500 graduates each year, according to data cited by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.
Harbin said the Diesel by Distance program is a component of Wallace State's diesel technology program, and will serve as an alternate pathway to receiving a diesel technology degree. There are funds built in to the program for scholarship opportunities, as well as funds for wraparound services like child care or transportation, she said.
"Not everyone would qualify for scholarships, but we will do our best to support you in that," she said.
Harbin said students will also be working in local industries through apprenticeships as part of the program, and they will be earning wages that can increase as they advance through their classes.
"It's our hope that we will be able to support you throughout the whole program where you can leave college debt free," she said.
A link to watch a replay of the full Q&A session can be found at https://hubs.li/H0Khr3b0
Tyler Hanes can be reached at 256-734-2131 ext. 238.