Decked out in a zombie-themed welding mask, Gillette College student Vince Perez practices stick welding in an advanced stick welding class at the Gillette College Technical Education Center’s welding lab during a 2018 class.

Classes have moved online, making it difficult for courses that require labs and experience

GILLETTE — Austin Carlson is a first-year welding student at Gillette College, pursuing a passion of his that he picked up in shop class at Campbell County High School.

His first year of technical instruction has taken him, and other students in hands-on programs, in an unexpected detour because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A field of study tailor made for people who can’t sit still, who like to fix things, and who need to use their hands while working, has gone completely online.

“It’s all for something you love to do,” he said about sticking with the program. “You start it back when you’re in high school, and it just kind of drags you in.”

Carlson has still been able to gain welding experience at a nearby coal mine because he was hired through a program with Gillette College. He won’t be able to get his first year welding certification, however, until restrictions on classroom teaching are lifted.

“We’ve been told that our best shot is somewhere in June. We can possibly pick up in June and finish in August,” he said about finishing the year.

The technical education programs and nursing program at Gillette College, which require a lot of face-to-face interaction and equipment, have adapted to online learning during the pandemic. 

Some of the programs will be able to finish on time online, while others will need to return to a traditional classroom to fully complete the requirements, said Dr. Walt Tribley, the Northern Wyoming Community College District president.

“Some can complete fully online, like industrial electricity, like nursing. Others are in more of a hybrid mode,” Tribley said. “They’re getting some of it done. Students are still staying engaged by online learning right now, but they will have to come back at some point.”

The diesel technology and welding programs are two examples of hands-on programs offered at the college that won’t be able to be completed while online-only learning is going on.

The students in those classes were accustomed to spending most of their time in a shop working with welding equipment, torquing bolts, using other tools and watching an instructor provide examples of real world situations on projects in the lab.

Now those programs have moved online a couple of classes that focus on theoretical training.

“Of course, with tech that’s tough. Our students aren’t used to that delivery format and neither are our instructors so it’s been a learning curve,” said Travis Grubb, interim dean of career and technical education. “We’ve moved to a hybrid model where we’re doing the book work, so to speak, online. And then we are really hoping to get back face-to-face with those students to complete the rest of the material.”

The welders have used Zoom to have a once-a-week meeting with teachers and classmates, and they have used Canvas, a learning management system, to upload photos of assignments for grading.

Grubb also said that some of the faculty, like those in the machine tool and diesel technology programs, have GoPro video cameras to create educational videos for students.

“You can pull a lot of material off of YouTube and some other places, but it’s not the same as if our instructors produce it,” Grubb said. “We can ensure it covers exactly what we want.”

Grady Hanson, a freshman in the welding program, started driving for DoorDash to stay busy and make money while taking the welding classes online. With hands-on sections of class postponed, the students don’t have nearly as much schoolwork to do during the week, he said.

However, Hanson said there is plenty to learn about welding without being in the lab.

“Welding is a very hard science to learn. There’s a lot of things you can learn about welding without being technical,” he said. “For instance, there’s different grades of metals that you have to learn to weld on, and you have to know the difference just by looking at it.”

Other programs, like the industrial electricity program, will be able to finish on time, Grubb said.

Industrial electricity students picked up take-home kits shortly after in person classes were canceled. Border States Electric donated thousands of dollars worth of programmable logic controllers, and DAKTIC donated simulation software, valued at over $10,000, making it possible for students to fully complete the requirements, Grubb said.

“They’ve been able to pretty much move a lot of their labs to smaller scale, but they’re doing the same work,” Grubb said.

The nursing program at Gillette College is also set to finish on time in the next couple of weeks using online methods.

The program is using virtual simulations, case studies, Zoom meetings and other online assignments to meet the clinical requirements, said Louise Posten, the director of nursing for the Northern Wyoming Community College District.

“Each one of our semesters has a portion of hands-on training, but we do replace some of that hands-on time with simulation and some other forms of clinical practice,” she said. “We’re not exclusively all hands-on. Some of it we do in other ways to get those numbers of hours in.”

Students and professors in the program registered with the Wyoming Activation of Volunteers in Emergencies system through the Wyoming Department of Health, but nobody has been called for service, Posten said. They also donated all of the college’s personal protective equipment.

Before the pandemic, nursing students could log hours and work with patients at Campbell County Memorial Hospital. Then it shut down to students as it implemented safety precautions.

“It’s not ideal, but I think we’re managing it really well,” Posten said.

Many students choose a career like nursing and welding because it is in their nature to be out moving around, creating and fixing things, instead of cooped up in a cubicle pushing buttons all day.

For the time being, hands-on is hard to do. But those students will be back moving around, molding things, and making a change in their environments sooner than expected.


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