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Vermont Tech Students Get Real World Training In New Lab

Charlotte Albright
Zebadiah Updike, an engineering student at Vermont Technical College, programs a drill press that can make three-dimensional objects, following student-generated computer codes.

This fall, Vermont Technical College launched a new degree program: a Bachelor of Science in Manufacturing Engineering Technology. A newly renovated lab allows students to learn how to program machines very similar to those used in high-tech manufacturing.

That’s where, on a crisp October day, about a dozen budding engineers are programming computers to tell drills how to turn plastic blocks about the size of Rubik's cubes into interlocking puzzle pieces. It’s a lot harder than it looks. The students have to write computer code to direct a high speed drill how to make precision cuts — thousands of them — in complicated three-dimensional patterns.

Andrew Young is a second-year student from Jericho, Vermont. His team has designed a block that looks like a little landscape.

“I don’t know, it’s kind of like Death Valley mesas,” he says, peering at a model of his cube tilting and rotating on his screen.

Young’s computer code will go onto a thumb drive that gets plugged into the glassed-in drill press machine across the room. It's about the size of a refrigerator.

“You have a bit that’s vertical and that can plunge into the part. But instead of having a stationary part there’s a vise that can move on both x and y, and that’s how you get the 3D features with the three different axes,” Young explains.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Andrew Young and his team program a computer to instruct a drill press to create a complicated puzzled from a plastic cube. They are working in a new lab opened this fall at Vermont Technical College.

This lab simulates a work environment many students will find if they get jobs in some of New England’s most advance engineering companies. Instructor Jeremy Cornwall says partnering with manufacturers is key to this program’s success.

“We have industry come in and give us their input on what they think the most valuable skills are and employees they want to hire. And so that guides our curriculum and how we teach our courses,” Cornwall says.

The legislature appropriated $1 million to upgrade VTC’s labs just last spring, and the space was ready for school in September. VTC hopes to get another $500,000 in 2017, which the school would have to match. 

As a team enters data into the drill press to start making the puzzle, Cornwall has a few last minute questions.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Vermont Technical College instructor Jeremy Cornwall, right, helps engineering student Manny Aretakis, from Maine, to program a drill press that takes instructions from code students generate using sophisticated software.

“Did you make sure you have enough of the block hanging off the vise that it’s not going to interfere when it starts coming to the interlock?” he asks.

With a few more adjustments, the drilling seems to go well. But prototypes like this still have to be tested to make sure they can be replicated. That happens in another new lab next door. VTC President Dan Smith says these labs and the new manufacturing engineering degree program are unusual in northern New England and possibly unique in Vermont. He says VTC is not just graduating students. It’s building a badly needed workforce. 

“Vermont Technical College is committed to being a source of competitive advantage for Vermont-based manufacturing,” Smith says.

VTC officials say there are 5,500 open manufacturing jobs in Vermont, and a skills gap makes it hard to find qualified workers. That’s one reason the traditionally two-year college is starting to offer more four-year degrees. There’s enough flexibility for students to go to work after two years and then return to finish the bachelor’s degree, perhaps while still on the job.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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