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Technology Elevating FVCC’s Learning Landscape
Student wins NASA honor, one of many benefiting from tech advancements
Illustration by Stephen Templeton/Flathead Beacon
At Flathead Valley Community College, students will soon learn how to operate excavators from the warmth and safety of a classroom. Until then, they can practice backing up an 18-wheeler at a computer, work with energy produced by a windmill or interact with a programmed mannequin that simulates real-life hospital emergencies.

And one student is taking technology a step farther: He’s heading to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in May to plan a mission to Mars, even if the mission is only theoretical.

Technological advancements in the community college’s curriculum and equipment over the past several years have touched nearly every department, Brenda Hanson, director of educational services, said. The strides in technology have instantly opened up new educational opportunities, or simply improved existing opportunities, educators say.

The chemistry department now has a high-tech instrumentation lab; the occupational trades building is loaded with gizmos; and the nursing and paramedics programs have real-life simulation opportunities. Even the jewelry arts program utilizes CAD/CAM technology for designing jewelry, Hanson said.

“Everywhere, you’re seeing a lot of programs incorporating a lot more technology,” Hanson said.

In step with the college’s high-performing technology are classrooms increasingly loaded with high-performing students. Garrett Peebles is one of them. Peebles, 20, is finishing up his associate’s degree in science with intentions of studying mechanical engineering at Montana State University. He’s also the student planning the Mars mission.

Peebles is the only student from Montana to be selected for the National Community College Aerospace Scholars pilot program. Seventy-six students from 28 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico were chosen.

According to NASA, the program encourages “community and junior college students to enter careers in science and engineering, and join the nation’s high technology workforce.”

To qualify, Peebles wrote an essay and designed a space rover through a series of online assignments. Along with the rover design, the assignments also called for budgeting and planning a space mission. In Houston, he will essentially do this again with a group of other students over a three-day period beginning May 20. NASA pays his travel expenses.

While the NASA program encourages students to “join the nation’s high technology workforce,” an increasing number of students at FVCC are also studying for careers in a technological field, Hanson said. This has especially been the case during the recession. Laid-off workers are looking for practical second careers, Hanson said, and technology seems particularly practical to many.

The college offers courses, certificates and degrees in information technology, web technology, 3-D animation modeling, surgical technology and more. It has also expanded its online courses. And even the programs that don’t immediately call to mind technology careers are requiring far more technological expertise. The college, in the past several years, has grown increasingly capable of accommodating those expertise requirements.

In the occupational trades building alone, Bill Roope can point to dozens of advancements that have dramatically altered how students learn their trades. Roope is the director of career and technical education, which encompasses a range of vocational studies.

For the commercial-driving license program, students have been using computerized simulation to practice backing up and turning for the past year. This is useful for the winter and simply for the sake of the trucks. Beginners often jackknife the trucks, ruining the tires. At $180 per tire, the expenses add up fast.

Roope said similar simulation technology will be available for excavators, graders and loaders beginning this fall.

“It’s almost as realistic as flight simulation,” Roope said.

The occupational trades building has added a windmill and solar panels to allow students in the electrical technology program to keep up with the times. And now, standing alongside traditional manual machines, are machines powered by computer numerical control (CNC) technology.

In the chemistry department, Dr. Paul Martino said his students no longer have to work in a windowless lab. Now they have two spacious labs for experiments and an instrumentation lab equipped with the latest technology.

A $119,000-grant from the National Science Foundation has expanded the department’s offerings. Martino is particularly pleased with the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) capabilities.

“All of this has really helped our program,” he said.

Peebles is completing his last semester at FVCC this spring before he moves on to MSU. He’s not sure whether the NASA experience will be a one-time deal or a glimpse into his future. But he does know if NASA comes knocking on his door in the future, he’ll be all ears.

“I definitely wouldn’t turn it down,” Peebles said. “It would be awesome, as far as I’m concerned.”
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