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Students experience plant floor through virtual reality

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The message is getting through: the future promises a lot of good jobs for those with a solid foundation in science, technology, engineering and math. There is a long list of examples of schools, and sometimes the private sector, making efforts to strengthen those STEM skills, all the way down to the earliest grades.

The challenge now is to convince today’s students – and their parents – that manufacturing jobs are worth pursuing. A new program funded by a Department of Defense initiative aims to do that by speaking to them in a language they understand.

Virtual reality is the centerpiece of the program called TIME for Robotics being developed now at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development.

Jeff Bertrand, virtual reality lead for the Clemson University Center for Workforce Developmennt, demontrates how virtual reality can be used to inspire interest in STEM-related work. (Photo/Ross Norton)Kapil Chalil Madathil, the director of technology operations at the Center for Workforce Development, said the team will create a series of courses that include online lectures and videos, along with lessons in augmented and virtual reality. The courses will be designed to show students what it’s like to work in a manufacturing environment with robots.

At a recent demonstration of the program, he showed how a person can take a virtual walk through a factory and gain an understanding of what it’s like to work there. He said it can help dispel old ideas of life as a factory worker.

“With this particular program we’re trying to impact the entire stream of students, starting with K through 12 and going into college,” Madathil said. “We can show them what manufacturing is like now, that it’s not the dark and dingy environment of the past. We are also looking more in terms of how the students in high schools will be able to learn more about the kind of jobs that are available in the advanced manufacturing industry. And they can see that these are the kinds of skills you will need if you want to work as a technician in a manufacturing plant like BMW or Ford.”

Madathil said the program will begin with Greenville Technical College but it will be available across the country eventually, available online.

The program is designed to help address the manufacturing industry’s anticipated shortage of qualified workers. A skills gap could leave as many as 2 million manufacturing jobs unfilled by 2025, according to a study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

Clemson President James P. Clements announced that TIME for Robotics will be funded with $1.79 million from the Department of Defense Manufacturing Engineering Education Program.

“The changing landscape in manufacturing calls for new and innovative approaches to providing the workforce of tomorrow with the skills needed to succeed,” Clements said in a news release. “TIME for Robotics is aimed at deepening and diversifying the pool of workers who are ready for jobs in advanced manufacturing.”

Plans call for researchers to develop curriculum tracks for students pursuing high school diplomas, associate degrees, baccalaureate degrees and master’s degrees, the news release said.

Courses will be divided into modules that are designed to supplement traditional classroom lessons. Instructors will be able to pick which modules to use in their classes.

The modules will be made available at EducateWorkforce.com, which gives students the flexibility to work it into their schedules.

David Clayton, executive director of Greenville Technical College’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation, said he and the technical college’s faculty will provide subject matter expertise about what a technician would need to know.

“We’ll develop that curriculum jointly with Clemson, and Greenville Technical College will be the first institution to offer these learning tools and curriculum,” he said in the news release. “The idea is that other technical colleges, community colleges and universities use the content as well.”

A key focus of the program will be on how people and robots can work together, which researchers hope will help alleviate concerns that factory workers will lose their jobs to the machines.

“So much is moving in the direction of robotics and automated processes,” Rebecca Hartley, director of operations at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development, said in the news release. “There is a fascination with it and a terror when people think about losing jobs. TIME for Robotics will allow us to showcase the critical skills that students need to know. That takes away a lot of the fear. Most of the courses we are looking at focus on where the human interaction is so important.”

The new approach will be particularly helpful in attracting groups that might otherwise bypass advanced manufacturing, including women, groups underrepresented in STEM fields, veterans and people with disabilities, researchers said.

Madathil said the program can also be used to train workers in a more engaging manner. He said, for example, that workers could use virtual reality to learn and demonstrate their knowledge of safety hazards. A virtual walk on a factory floor to spot safety violations is better for retention than what Medathil called “death by PowerPoint.”

“The overarching goal is to support the needs of students entering the advanced robotics industry,” said Madathil, who is also an assistant professor of industrial and civil engineering. “We want to provide a plug-and-play system that allows students and instructors to use this content in a seamless fashion.”

Reach Ross Norton at 864-720-1222.

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