RCC's electronics program tests students bounds

Adam McCreesh sat in a Rappahannock Community College classroom, gleefully describing a moment when he accidentally toasted an electrical resister.

"It took more power than it should have," the 20-year-old explained to classmates. "If the ohms — the value of electrical resistance — is too low, it'll burn up ... when it burns up, it's very visible that something is wrong."

McCreesh is one of the first students in the community college's Basic Electronics program at the RCC's New Kent campus. The program was added to the school's roster this fall semester.

Students completing the 20-credit program become better trained for entry-level positions in the sales and installation of electrical/electronic components and equipment.

By 2024, the profession will greater demand in some areas (commercial and industrial equipment, other transportation equipment and power tool repair and installation) and dips in others (motor vehicle equipment installers and repairers), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What is expected to remain constant though, is that the education will help graduates earn a solid middle class income. Electrical installers and repairers make a median pay of $26.52 per hour, or about $55,160 per year, according to the buruea.

"These are skills that can be used in computer repair, industrial technician positions and repair of electrical equipment," said Eric Pesola, Rappahannock Community College web designer and marketing specialist. "Therefore, the certificate allows the student to pursue multiple career options."

RCC's Basic Electronics certificate program also serves as a stepping stone for obtaining associate's or bachelor's engineering degrees, Pesola said.

"There's a real need for engineers in the work force," Pesola said. "Electronics technicians are often required by the military, so in nearby areas, this field is in demand."

Electrical and electronics engineers with bachelors degrees make a median pay of $45.78 per hour, or $95,230 per year, according to the bureau.

In a job market where vocational training and technical skills are becoming more and more valuable, the college is working to provide students hands-on experience in a variety of fields," Pesola said.

"Community college is so much cheaper than going straight to a four-year school," Engineering Technology professor Johnny Cornett said. "You can get certain courses out of the way at $5,000 per year, instead of $20,000 per year. You can save yourself $40,000 easily."

Teaching and experience

Cornett is a design engineer who worked 18 years at Sperry Marine and the last four years teaching at RCC.

While working for Sperry Marine, four of his designs were awarded patents. He was the program manager for marine and airborne radar, collision avoidance systems and integrated navigation systems.

One of Cornett's largest projects was creating an integrated bridge system for the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. The research vessel travels to both the North and South poles and can also support logistics, search and rescue, ship escort, environmental protection and law and treaty enforcement missions.

The Sperry Marine and Cornett design includes five conning stations, which use radar, navigation, steering, propulsion and communication equipment to maneuver the ship.

In RCC's engineering classroom, Cornett hung a large poster of the Cutter Healy above a programmable controller system, a device used to control manufacturing equipment such as assembly lines or robotic devices.

"High school students usually don't really know what they want to do for the rest of their lives," Cornett said. "Our job is to spend time with them and ask what they enjoy, are good at and can make money doing."

Cornett said one of his priorities in the classroom is to provide students with the theoretical foundation, then reinforce it with hands-on experiences in lab.

"I give them troubleshooting problems and they have to figure out what's wrong," Cornett said. "It gives them a real-life application for what they've learned in class."

Options for everyone

Not every part of the class takes place in the classroom, especially for students who hold day jobs.

Three of Cornett's D.C. and A.C. Fundamentals students are employed full-time, and two students take the course exclusively online.

In October 2015, RCC received a $20,571 Chancellor's Innovation Fund grant from Virginia's Community Colleges to make electronic and engineering classes accessible to rural students. The grant was split between RCC and three other rural community colleges — Blue Ridge, Southside and Piedmont Virginia — and funded 20 electrical engineering labs total.

"Our two online-only students are in their 40s and wouldn't be able to make it to class if it wasn't online," Cornett said. "I videotape the classes then put them online later so the students can do the work on their time."

Although the online students are over 40 years old, at least three of the students are recent high school graduates.

Adam McCreesh, a 2014 Gloucester High School graduate, built a personalized computer and wired houses with a Newport News construction company for six or seven months.

About a year ago, McCreesh decided house wiring was the wrong job for him, and he turned to RCC for other options.

"Electronics have always interested me, and this sounded like a positive choice to make," McCreesh said.

Another student, 18-year-old Jose Perez, graduated from King & Queen Central High School in June. He talked with his high school guidance counselor, who suggested he commit two years to a community college. Perez said he is more of a hands-on learner, and felt he was well-suited for the basic electronics program.

The third student in class is Zach Owens, a 2015 graduate from Mathews High School. Both of his parents work at the WestRock paper mill in West Point, and he may apply for a job there as well.

All three students said they were unsure what career they would choose after completing the basic electronics program at RCC, but they agreed the basic electronics program was a step in the right direction.

"We spend time with the students asking what they want to do, what they like," Cornett said. "We spend time up-front with them to help them find their passion."

Fearing can be reached by phone at 757-298-5838.

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