HANCEVILLE, Ala. – Wallace State Community College has been awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) grant aimed at increasing the number of women and adult learners in diesel technology training.
The three-year $279,336 award was announced Wednesday by NSF.
“We are so very pleased to have been selected for this award, which will allow us to make education and training for high-demand careers in the diesel industry more accessible to students, and will help to encourage more individuals to consider a career in diesel,” said Wallace State President Dr. Vicki Karolewics.
The concept for this grant project began in early 2020, and last March when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted in-person instruction, the urgency to provide new and flexible learning options for students became a priority.
“During the pandemic, the transportation industry was crucial in the supply chain, creating even more of an urgency to supply a talent pipeline to support the industry,” said Suzanne Harbin, vice president for advancement. “Wallace State took this opportunity to innovate and create a program that benefits the employer through establishing a talent pipeline, and the student through an earn and learn opportunity.”
Wallace State’s project, titled “Developing and Implementing Hybrid Instruction to Increase the Access of Women and Adult Learners to Diesel Technology Training,” will include a partnership with the National Institute of Women in Trades, Technology and Sciences to increase the diversity of students entering the Diesel Technology program, ultimately providing more opportunities and jobs for women and other adult learner populations under-represented in the diesel technology field.
The Alabama Department of Labor estimates that Alabama companies will need to hire 3,000 diesel technicians over the next six years.
“We’d like to have 200 students a year enrolled in our program in order to meet demand,” said Jeremy Smith, chair of the diesel technology program at Wallace State, a NC3 certified master trainer and a thought leader in the field. The program has a near 100 percent job placement rate.
Recruiting women to technical fields has been a goal of the college for a number of years, and several women have completed the diesel technology program in recent years and gone on to successful careers in the field.
One of the newest students, Alicia Gardner, who will start the program this summer, said, “I chose Diesel by Distance because it’s a program suited for me. I have children at home, so I’m able to work and be able to learn at the same time, while getting a degree. It’s a great opportunity for anybody.”
This grant will also expand the use of technology and hybrid offerings in the diesel program to increase accessibility and convenience for learners, a key component of Diesel by Distance.
Diesel by Distance, part of Wallace State’s more traditional diesel technology program, is designed to allow students to learn high-demand diesel mechanics from anywhere, even on the road, using virtual reality, distance learning, and work-based learning, with drive-in and remote assessments tailored to the student’s schedule.
“It is our goal to take best practices learned from the use of virtual reality in the Diesel by Distance program and apply them to all of our programs,” said Dean of Applied Technologies at Wallace State, Wes Rakestraw .
Wallace State partnered with TransfrVR and the Alabama Trucking Association on the Diesel by Distance project, which launched this week with funding through a U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration Workforce Opportunity for Rural Communities (WORC) grant and support from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Students enrolled may now use virtual reality training to give them access to on-the-job training that would otherwise take place in a technical workshop. A digital coach in the virtual training modules will provide immediate feedback through conversational artificial intelligence.
Both the NSF project and Diesel by Distance have the potential to establish a pathway to employment for individuals in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in Alabama, and to reduce the burden on supply-chain logistics, which has been taxed as the demand for the delivery of goods has increased.
Wallace State’s diesel program is NATEF accredited, recognized by the National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3), and has scores of local and national industry partners. The program also conducts customized workforce training for industry.
Scholarships are available for women in diesel and for others enrolling in the diesel program.