January/February 2012
Talk to Me

Getting technical education right

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

I recently visited Lee College in Baytown, Tex. (www.lee.edu), which is a community college doing an amazing job of training automation and instrument professionals that are needed by industry. The core of the Lee College mission, "We build and deliver just in time, targeted, and customized training to meet industry's call for new hires and/or incumbents." The college works closely with industry to understand talent needs and builds programs that will meet those needs. It is getting results being ranked sixth in the nation for degrees awarded in science and technology with approximately 50% of Lee College students in technical programs. Lee has a more diverse student population than other community colleges of comparable size, including 46% White, 30% Hispanic, and 18% African-American. Graduates are getting good paying jobs because they are work ready.

First, I was impressed full-time faculty members are required to have a minimum of 15 years' direct industry experience. The experience of the staff is obvious as I talked with them and visited the student labs, where they use real-world industrial instruments configured in working processes. The labs are built to teach full process control with industrial field hardware, including instrumentation, drives, and pumps moving fluids. One instructor talked about how students invariably will ask "what if" questions, and he lets the students try it out in the lab and see the validity or their idea or problems created. He noted when students see the consequences of doing things wrong working in the safe environment of the lab they are likely to remember the lesson.

Lee College has several professional partnerships and affiliations to stay engaged in the community to be sure they are doing the right things. Partners include the International Society of Automation (ISA), National Science Foundation, Department of Labor, and Fieldbus Foundation. It is worth noting they have 96 student members in the school's ISA chapter, putting them in the top five worldwide. (The top two were from China.) Last year, Lee College held an event, "Automation Day" in conjunction with the Automation Federation, with more than 650 high-school students from several local school districts introducing students and teachers to automation and the different fields of study and jobs available.

Chuck Carter, center director, Lee College Center for Digital and Fieldbus Technological Education, provided his thoughts on programs at the college. Carter expressed his belief in the value of hands-on experience, and he championed the building of a full-scale processing facility at the college that has been running since 1998. The college is working to cultivate more internship programs with companies since they have been successful for the students and participating companies.

Carter said perspective students can relate to a number of potential careers, such as firefighter, police, pilot, and auto mechanic, since these bring to mind a visual image, but they have no idea that jobs exist in the automation and control field. The college has been doing outreach to inform the community about opportunities in the field.

Carter said what I believe illustrates the overall attitude at Lee College, "We tell everybody when they ask what they need to come in and take the program to be successful. Number one, you need the want to; if you've got the want to, by golly gee, we have the resources to work with you."

Carter mentioned they are always looking for good equipment to give students hands-on training. If you can help, contact him at ccarter@lee.edu.

The industry needs more cooperation between users and technical schools. Think about how you can help.

Please share your thoughts at blydon@isa.org.