Wallace State gears up for new virtual reality diesel tech program

Tribune file photo 

HANCEVILLE, Ala. – Wallace State Community College (WSCC) is preparing to launch a new diesel tech program this summer with a curriculum that will use Virtual Reality (VR) simulations to help students train to work bumper-to-bumper on diesel-powered heavy trucks, buses, heavy equipment and trailers. Students will be further aided by the hands-on experience of paid apprenticeships while in the program, and will still come to campus to complete competency evaluations with program instructors. 

 Dean of Applied Technologies Wes Rakestraw told The Tribune: 

 “It’s an online delivery of theory content which anybody can do. Anybody can put notes out there, or even lecture videos. But where we have made it truly something that is effective and that industry has embraced is that we have three components. We have actual videos where the instructor has walked students through a 16hour piston change, just as an example. So these videos are broken down into segments that they can watch in digestible pieces and actually see the processes right there in front of them. 

 “And then, after they’ve completed that, then we have the Oculus headsets that they put on. And we’re working toward over 400 simulations in those headsets, where we contracted with TRANSFR VR, and they are turning our videos into a Virtual Reality program. So they then take what they’ve learned and do it through Virtual Reality, and our instructor will be available while they’re logged into that to answer questions if they get stuck, those kinds of things.  

 “And then, the third piece, that’s really powerful, is we are working with different companies to provide on-the-job training. So while the students are learning those skills, they then get to go and practice them in different field locations. 

 “And then, finally, when they’re ready, they can come in on campus-which would potentially be the first time they come on campus-they would be checked off on a certain number of competencies that they’ve mastered. So we’re not just leaving them out there by themselves. 

 So a key part of it is having that work-based learning segment along with the competency check-off that is on campus. But what is different again is we’re going to schedule those at their convenienceif it’s on weekends, if it’s at midnight, whenever they can fly in and get their competencies done, we’re going to have an instructor for them to do that.” 

 Asked how WSCC got into VR instruction, Rakestraw said, “At first, it was due to the vision of our President, Dr. Karolewics. That was something that she could see coming down the pike, so to speak, and she picked diesel because we had a very innovative instructor who was willing to take on that huge task, and of course, that’s Jeremy Smith.” 

 Rakestraw added, “You know, the timing was interesting. About three months, four months into that project, we all went virtual due to COVID, so all that did was accelerate our advancement.” 

 The Dean told The Tribune that WSCC hopes to take what it learns from the implementation of the VR diesel program and apply it to other programs as well. 

 The program already has students enrolled for the start of classes this summer.  

 The school released this statement: 

 Wallace State Community College, one of the largest colleges in the Alabama Community College System serving more than 6,000 students, today announced the launch of an ambitious new initiative that will harness the power of virtual reality to train thousands of workers for roles in good-paying diesel tech jobs. Delivered through the college’s popular Diesel by Distance program and built in collaboration with immersive learning startup TRANSFR, the partnership will expand access to career-relevant training and help thousands of working adults launch careers in the fast-growing industry of diesel technology. 

 “As we work to help meet Alabama’s statewide workforce goals and get people into the many skilled trades with unfilled jobs, diesel technology is a key industry facing a serious shortage of talent,” said Dr. Vicki Karolewics, president of Wallace State Community College. “Through this next generation approach to technical training, we have an opportunity to meet a pressing need for employers, while getting those in search of work into secure and good-paying jobs. The integration of simulation-based technology into this program is helping to generate new interest in the program and the careers in diesel tech, more broadly.” 

 Diesel by Distance will now feature hands-on virtual reality simulations that recreate the working environment of a diesel technician or mechanic. In the simulations, developed by TRANSFR, students learn, practice and master skills that are essential to the construction, manufacture, repair and maintenance of diesel engine vehicles. Because many employers require these technicians to be certified, the program helps to expand career opportunities for workers interested in pursuing diesel technology careers.  

 Alabama is one of several states facing a shortage of certified diesel technicians and mechanics qualified to service commercial trucks, buses and diesel-powered transportation vehicles used for critical functions such as construction, farming, public transportation and emergency services.  

 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. 

 “The trucking and commercial transportation industry keeps our communities safe, healthy, fed and connected, but none of that is possible without the highly-trained technicians that keep our fleets on the road,” said Mark Colson, president and CEO, Alabama Trucking Association. “At a time when the need for skilled diesel techs is growing, the Diesel by Distance program will create the pipeline of well-qualified talent that our industry needs. The use of VR has brought the real-world experience of diesel tech into the classroom, ensuring students can be ready to get to work on day one.” 

 Launched in late 2020, Wallace State’s Diesel by Distance program combines self-paced coursework and fully-online training that enables students to earn a certificate or degree in diesel technology. Students enrolled in the program can study from anywhere—even on the road, with live feedback and training from instructors—while they participate in paid apprenticeships that allow them to earn while they learn. Through funding from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, Wallace State will also collaborate with the National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology & Science to recruit and enroll aspiring female technicians, helping them to upskill for good-paying work in an industry where women are significantly underrepresented. 

 “All skills gaps are local, and what we’ve heard clearly from industry is the need to augment traditional classroom instruction with the first-hand work experience that so often only on-the-job training can offer,” said Bharani Rajakumar, founder and CEO of TRANSFR. “As a true partnership between educators and industry leaders, Diesel by Distance has bridged the gap between work-based learning and classroom instruction, accelerating pathways to good-paying jobs for thousands of workers.” 

Through a partnership with the Alabama Trucking Association and a network of other diesel trucking and automotive employers in the states, students will receive job placement assistance, ensuring that graduates can smoothly transition directly into well-paying diesel tech jobs after completing their training. 

 For more information, contact Jeremy Smith, WSCC Diesel Program 2563528063 –  jeremy.smith@wallacestate.edu or visit www.wallacestate.edu/dieselbydistance. 

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W.C. Mann