July 16, 2020
July 16, 2020 – Long before the world came face to face with the social distancing challenges of Covid-19, Northland Community & Technical College was making plans and preparations to launch a groundbreaking, multi-disciplinary program that would employ a new-to-Minnesota education model that is perfectly suited for learning amidst a pandemic.
Northland’s new Mechatronics program will train students in a broad range of mechanical, electrical, automation and manufacturing technologies – an urgent and growing need for local companies like American Crystal Sugar, Digi-Key, and Philadelphia Macaroni Company, three of the region’s largest recruiters of Northland graduates. Aside from the many skills covered, what sets this new program apart is its use of Competency-Based Education (CBE), a model that focuses on proving comprehension through demonstration vs. traditional testing.
“The idea of going to school, taking a class that’s Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 10-11:00 a.m. is such an old idea,” explains Andrew Dahlen, Manufacturing Process Technology Instructor at Northland and leading voice in designing the Mechatronics program. “We’re taking the traditional college class and getting rid of it. there is no set class time. This program will accommodate a wide variety of schedules and give students – who may already be full-time workers – the ability to learn these skills and earn their degree or certificate at their own pace. Students will have to be self-disciplined, which, from an employer’s perspective, is exactly what you want in an employee.”
Curtis Zoller, Associate Dean for Aerospace and Agriculture, points out the new Mechatronics program also gives students tremendous financial, as well as scheduling flexibility.
“You can think of this as an on-demand training program, where students can attend at their own pace and pay for classes as they go,” Zoller says. “The labs will be open whenever students are ready to come in and complete a module. There are no required lectures or classroom time. For our workforce partners in the region, it gives them a great opportunity to send their employees to us when time allows learning a new skill.”
As Dahlen explains it, any manufacturing company is going to have a need for the skills being taught in the new Mechatronics program. Local companies had approached Northland a few years ago and explained the growing need for people with a diverse set of technical skills and asked the school for help in training their employees and future workers.
“`What can you do to help us out?’ they asked. Other programs in the area have been discontinued, but the need is still there and it’s only going to grow,” Dahlen says. “As companies are turning more and more to automation to solve their various challenges, they need people who know how to work on the machinery to keep the operation running.”
Offered as a traditional two-year degree with several shorter certificate opportunities mixed in, Mechatronics is more of a class-by-class independent study. Each course will include a combination of online and hands-on training, as well as one-on-one skill assessments (in place of traditional testing). Students won’t pass a class until they can prove they have mastered the skill. If a student comes in with a lot of real-world experience, he or she may be able to complete a course in a matter of days. “I can see some people coming in and earning a 60-credit, two-year AAS degree in one year’s time because they’ve already got the knowledge and experience,” Dahlen says.
The new Mechatronics program will officially launch this fall, and because there are no lectures or group studies it will be virtually pandemic-proof, ensuring students will get the training they need and local employers will be able to start recruiting for crucial roles. As a community college with a mission to serve the needs of the local economy, Northland once again is proving a willingness to innovate and break new ground for students and industry.