COLUMBUS — Before he stepped into the lab, Kyle Reeves had no idea about mechatronics.
The process of using a combination of electronics and engineering systems was foreign to the Lakeview High School student. Spending a few hours Friday in the Mechatronics Education Center at Central Community College-Columbus helped the junior gain a better understanding of the process through hands-on activities.
That's what a recently created pilot program is supposed to do.
The local college received an $893,698 grant from the National Science Foundation last year to improve its mechatronics program. The three-year grant will be used to develop an instrumentation and controls program to help meet the growing need for process instrumentation and controls technicians in the state.
Part of the effort to grow that skilled workforce is inviting high schoolers to the college to introduce them to mechatronics through the pilot program, said Sharon Gutierrez, a project coordinator along with Elizabeth Fisher.
About 35 Lakeview students in principles of technology, physics and science research classes spent time in the lab where they got to speak to CCC-C students enrolled in the mechatronics program and work with some of the equipment.
Lakeview is the first high school to be part of the program. Gutierrez, who used to teach at Lakeview, reached out to the school because it doesn't have a STEM program like Columbus High School.
Joe Haschke, a Lakeview science teacher, said the lab is a way for students to see physics and technology in action.
“There is tons of physics going on here, especially on the pneumatics side. They are dealing with air pressure and force. That’s plenty of application of physics," he said. "For principles of technology, it is even more related to what they are doing in class with robotics and using computers to program something that mechanically happens."
Last year, Lakeview students toured the mechatronics lab but didn’t get to work with equipment like they did during Friday's visit.
The program's main goal is to get students interested in careers in the mechatronics field.
Fisher said there are many companies that need to fill technical jobs but can’t because there's a shortage of skilled workers.
“The grant came about because there are so many open jobs," Fisher said. "The companies are advancing and growing. There is such a gap in the skilled workforce everywhere, especially in Nebraska."
The mechatronics program at Central offers a mechanical degree. However, that doesn’t cover the specialized skills of measuring, maintaining and calibrating fluids, gasses and temperature that is part of being an instrumentation and controls technician.
“Part of the grant is to develop that pathway to see if we can get more teachers to be able to incorporate mechatronics, especially the instrumentation and controls side of it, into their classes,” Fisher said.