Train for a Mechatronics Career Anytime, Anywhere
South Central College’s Mechatronics program is now available anytime and anywhere. From the comfort of your own home to the convenience of your worksite, you’ll access the same expert Mechatronics training South Central College has been offering on campus since 2009. Through a blended approach, students will have online lectures combined with lab kits and remote access to South Central College’s education automation lab.
iMEC is an exciting new distance learning program that gives students the opportunity to access instructors, participate in distance classes and experience the real hands-on training of on-site Mechatronics courses.
South Central developed iMEC, a distance learning educational model using online, simulation lab kits and remote access delivery methods that allow institutions to share curriculum and specialized equipment across multiple campuses and also with industry partners.
Through this approach students can attain a Mechatronics Industrial Maintenance Certificate entirely online while receiving the same lab and troubleshooting experiences as their on-site classmates. In the near future, South Central College will offer the Mechatronics Engineering Technology AAS Degree in its entirety via the iMEC system.
Because of the high cost of equipment in STEM laboratories, it is difficult for colleges and universities to duplicate STEM laboratories on every college campus. Additionally, industry found distance and travel time to be barriers for their employees getting the updated skills they needed and also traditional students faced some of these same barriers. To help remove barriers, South Central College considered how the existing successful Mechatronics program could be expanded to support even more students and industry. Building off the existing on-campus program, the Mechatronics staff embarked on distance delivery methods that would be a comparable experience for students.
While efforts have been made to integrate distance learning into South Central College’s academic programs, there remained areas where the need to manipulate tools, take measurements, and develop trouble shooting skills made online learning difficult. Mechatronics is an area of study in which activities such as troubleshooting and diagnostics of complex mechatronics systems are best acquired through hands-on learning.
iMEC has addressed these concerns with two unique innovations in addition to more traditional lectures and other on-line learning tools.
Workstations for Hands-on Learning Experiments (WHOLE) Kits
The Workstations for Hands-on Learning Experiments kits include all the materials and components necessary for the distant student to complete the Mechatronic labs in the same manner as face-to-face students. Depending on the course of study, kits include tools, frame/backplane, air tank, Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), electronic/mechanical components and work instructions necessary to build upon weekly progressive labs. These kits have been integrated into three of the first year Mechatronics courses.
When students enroll in a relevant Mechatronic class, they purchase the WHOLE kit from the SCC Book Store and it is sent to their locale. With the WHOLE kits, students now have the ability to follow-along on lesson plans and class activities in their living room or work area. No need for travel, no need for an expensive lab.
iMEC Independent Remote Experiment Automation Lab (iREAL) Machine
The iMEC Independent Remote Experiment Automation Lab (iREAL) systems are designed to make hardware available to distant learners to complete labs that are an integral part of their course of study. An overhead camera streams live images giving the student real-time feedback on the system’s performance. An HMI developed with National Interments LabVIEW acts as a control portal for the student to interact with the iREAL system. The student also has the ability to monitor and manipulate Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) software in an effort to create programs, troubleshoot and solve iREAL system issues based on a series of labs.
These innovations have made the on-line learning results of Mechatronic program participants comparable with the on-campus cohorts.
More students can now access SCC’s Mechatronic certificate and degree programs via on-line classes removing some of the barriers that students may experience in completing their education, including distance and accessibility. Students who are not able to travel to our campus can take this course and be ready to enter a career within two years.
A benefit for industry is the ability to train their existing workforce via iMEC. Avoiding the time and cost of sending workers off-site, the iMEC program allows these workers to acquire new skills or brush up on old ones while maintaining their current position, saving time and money for both the workers and the employer.
Student anywhere in the world, whether isolated geographically or by finances, can access the iMEC program and develop the skills they need to achieve their degree. Industry is provided with well-trained workers in many locations where it may have been difficult to provide this training in the past.
Local education institutions are saved from the expense of putting together a lab for themselves. Lab equipment and instructors are expensive and hard to find. In many cases, it is not reasonable to invest capital in locating equipment, instructors and other resources in multiple remote geographic areas to accommodate small numbers of students.
This work is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant DUE# 1304835.*
*Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.