TNCC equipping students with Siemens manufacturing certifications

Jane Hammond
.@TNCCfeed's mechatronics lab helping high school students get Siemens certified before graduation

A class full of high school students from across the Peninsula will be able to troubleshoot the assembly line at a manufacturing plant come this spring.

The 16 students are dual-enrolled in Thomas Nelson Community College's "mechatronics" program, with a handful more vying to get on a list for a future class.

Mechatronics blends mechanical and electronic — hence the name — as well as hydraulics, pneumatics and computer systems into one study, resulting in, in TNCC's case, a certification from Siemens, the German engineering giant.

Essentially, someone certified in mechatronics can build the circuits and other parts of a manufacturing system, while being able to troubleshoot a multitude of problems that might crop up.

These high school students, part of New Horizons Regional Education Center, will graduate with 22 college credits, the Siemens Certified Mechatronics Systems Assistant Level 1 certification — provided they pass it — and the potential for an entry-level job that makes $18 an hour.

Several students are instead using the program as a leg up after graduation to get into their intended careers in engineering, mechanics and even the film industry.

"I took this class because I just really like working with things, working with tools and my hands," said Scottinae Hatchett, a senior at Woodside High School. "When I grow up I want to be a mechanical engineer, so this is a great start. It's small things that you learn, but it explains a bigger picture, basically."

The mechatronics lab at New Horizons' Butler Farm campus is large and bright, filled with more than $500,000 worth of equipment — thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor — to allow students to simulate what they'd find on the job.

In the first week of class, the students learned binary code, the computer language of ones and zeroes. On Thursday, some worked on an electronic system, plugging red cords into a board of plugs and switches to turn on a right light bulb based on an equation they worked out.

Others controlled the heart of a mechanical system, manipulating the gears and belt that make everything run smoothly. Next semester, they'll get into computer programming.

For Sam Baird, a junior at Jamestown High School, the experience has been worth the early mornings in Hampton this semester.

"I love computers, I've worked with computers at home, I've built computers," Baird said. "I want to go into programming, game design, anything, and this opportunity arose. This will give me an edge in the field."

Rich Wilcox, an assistant professor at TNCC, said that demand for mechatronics has been high enough to add another afternoon session beginning Oct. 18.

That'll bring enrollment in mechatronics to around 37 students, and that's before some of the Level 1 graduates return for the Level 2 classes beginning in January.

"These kids really want to be here," Wilcox said. "They really want to learn. That's always good for a teacher."

Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951.

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