Engineering Tech Center rolls out new lab during 2020 Apprenticeship Week

As NWTC celebrates National Apprenticeship Week, staff are completing an innovative way for apprentices and engineering technology students to learn.
Staff in NWTC’s Engineering Technology Center have created a new, high-tech remote engineering lab. It features operator workstations with programmable logic controllers, advanced automation and variable frequency drive equipment. Students off-campus can program them online and watch the results through newly-installed web cams. If students are successful, they will make lights blink, miniature conveyor belts turn and drives spin on the NWTC Green Bay campus.
Lab aide Sarah Cassidy said it benefits students to see the results of their programs, “especially when students are just starting PLC programming, just learning which inputs and outputs go with which card and wire. This way they can get more of a hands-on experience, because watching a video or going through books is fine, but when you’re actually in control of real equipment, you can make sure you’re doing it right.”
She gestured to a table with Advanced Automation trainers set up under cameras. “For the first class or two, students are just learning what programming is going to make the conveyors move, make the lights light, and this will let them know if they’re able to move the equipment correctly. It’s an added visual for them, especially with not having the equipment right there.”
The idea was to find a solution that reduces contact between students, but faculty have seen much more potential, said lab aide Jon Schleis.
“Based on our current situation, if someone’s in quarantine, or if we have parents who are at home with their kids and they can’t get here during lab hours, this is an option for them,” Schleis said. “They can go through the curriculum as if they were here. We’re not set up where we can offer a whole online PLC class, but right now, we can give flexibility to students as needed.”

Even after most students can return to campus, the virtual operator stations promise new options, Schleis said. For example, they could allow employees in training to demonstrate their skills on real equipment without travel or coronavirus risk. They can also allow distant students to do more work from home, reducing current requirements for campus visits.
Some of the equipment was purchased with federal CARES Act funding so the College could serve more students virtually. There currently isn’t enough equipment for all students to work remotely, but faculty have discussed it. “That may be the future,” Schleis said. “We could have dedicated equipment that’s always set up. We could offer whole classes for apprenticeships, for degree programs, for businesses…this could go that way.”
Tim Powers, Electronics and Instrumentation Apprenticeship instructor, said that allowing remote students to run real equipment gets closer to the benefits of in-person, hands-on learning and it prevents . That keeps students on track in programs that can be five years long or longer.
“Apprentices can learn some things remotely, but there are some things that are easiest to learn if you can try your program, see how the equipment works, change your program, and see how that works differently,” said. “We had a way for students to use the programming software from off-campus, but this connects them to real-world equipment, lets them make the conveyor belt move and light up the indicators. This allows students who can’t come to campus for whatever reason—kids at home, quarantine, long commute—to continue their education. We want to keep these apprentices learning and making progress so they can complete on time.”
Students who can’t make it to campus have been a concern for Todd Kiel, Apprenticeship Manager.
“We currently have a gentleman who is a single parent who has a really hard time getting here because of day care and school for his children. This is huge for people in that situation. If we can help them out and supplement what we do with this kind of training until they can come back, we can keep things moving, keep them making progress without breaks in their education.
The new operator workstations are ready for testing just in time for the 2020 National Apprenticeship Week. NWTC is one of the state’s leading apprenticeship trainers, with 1,100 apprentices that work at 300 employers throughout Wisconsin.
“We have been celebrating National Apprenticeship Week for about five years,” said Kiel. “It’s a good route for a lot of our employers. Employers get a better trained employee, and as jobs get harder to fill, I think they find it advantageous to promote from within. Plus, generally speaking, you have someone being acclimated to your culture as they’re going to school. Students get to meet employers and try out careers. Everyone gets a good fit. I think apprenticeship is a win-win.”
Apprenticeship combines hands-on work experience from a real employer and classroom experience that provides professional expertise. To learn more, visit