Forward thinking

Middle schoolers explore future careers

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Things can get pretty noisy when you put several middle schoolers in one room.

But on Friday, March 17, the only sounds in the mechatronics lab were from the equipment, as professor Christopher Lewis demonstrated some of it to the young visitors, a group of 40 eighth-graders from Jemtegaard Middle School.

Otherwise, all eyes were on Lewis and the various machines in his lab at Clark College’s Columbia Tech Center campus.

Mechatronics is a major part of modern manufacturing, and essentially where electronics and machinery meet: If there’s a use for an electronic system to control machinery, it’s part of mechatronics.

The lab contains two different areas for the students to explore: One is a “noisy” room with various electrical and mechanical systems, while the other contains a manufacturing assembly and automation lab.

Lewis takes pride in showing off his classrooms, and for good reason: He wrote all 35 courses that make up the mechatronics technology program at Clark College. The program came about after several conversations with industries in the area about skill gaps in their workforce, and future needs.

“The most enjoyable part of today’s tour was to see the look of excitement and wonder on the faces of the kids,” he said. “I know my program has great application to their collective futures. To introduce them to our amazing lab environment and see them interact with the equipment showed me we are on the correct path.”

The students visited Clark College as a part of an assignment on future careers.

“We are trying to get our students to think about post-secondary options, whether it is college or trade school,” said David Cooke, JMS principal.

Lisa Leonard, career specialist at Washougal High School, also attended the field trip.

“The intent was to introduce students to training programs and employment areas where there is high demand,” she said. “Many programs are apprenticeship based with paid internships and zero cost college level coursework.”

Lewis, who has degrees in electronics engineering, automated manufacturing and project management, serves as the department chair for mechatronics.

“We want to give students the hands-on experience severely lacking in some training programs around the area,” he said. “They utilize the skills gained in the program not only in the many career options available but also in their everyday lives.”

Some examples include problem solving skills and learning to adapt to a fast-changing environment.

Although Lewis has given lab tours before, he had never hosted a group as large as the one from Jemtegaard.

“I hope I will host more as our community learns more about what we do in mechatronics technology here at Clark College,” he said. “I truly appreciate the opportunity to share with our community members the exciting and applicable investment our college has made in the future of our community as a whole.”

Skyler Boothby enjoyed how the mechatronics program demonstrations got him thinking.

“It is really interesting learning about how this stuff works,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun than watching a YouTube video or hearing about it in class because this is hands-on learning. It’s good to understand some of the complexity behind these machines.”

Added Gabriel Kent, “I’m enjoying the real life, hands-on aspect, and seeing how everything works. It’s a fun challenge and it makes me want to learn more about things.

The mechatronics program at Columbia Tech Center began in 2010. Since then, six classes have graduated, and had more than a 90 percent job placement range, noted Lewis.

“These are good family wage careers my graduates are filling,” he said. “Most of the graduates will go on to get positions in manufacturing, either on the maintenance side of the operation or on the production side.”

Classes are limited to 16 students per course. Morning, afternoon and evening classes are available. There are about 55 students currently at some point in the program.

“The most important reason we have a mechatronics program here at Clark College is our industry employers have a huge need for this type of technically trained workers to keep manufacturing jobs in our area,” he said.

Lewis continued, “Just as important, we are building the workforce that have the skills necessary to bring manufacturing jobs back to our area as well.”

The trip to the lab was part of a day-long career exploration trip. During the whirlwind trip, students visited Clark College, Westlie Ford in Washougal, as well as the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute and the NECA-IBEW Electrical Training Center in Portland.

“I love seeing the hope in kids’ eyes when they see the many options that are presented to them on field days,” said Cooke.