At the almost-empty Columbia Tech Center on Saturday, four teams of Clark College students huddle over panels of components and tubes, scribbling on worksheets and taking measurements.
It’s hour three in an all-day mechatronics lab, and if all goes well in this hydraulics class, connecting the right gadgets with the right pipes will deliver enough pressure to lift an 85-pound machine from the floor nearby.
This class is unique not only in its timing, but in the fact that it’s week three and this is the first face-to-face class these students have had together. Clark College this semester launched a mechatronics program with a hybrid of online and in-class instruction. After two quarters, students enrolled in the Rural Access Mechatronics Program, or RAMP, will receive a certificate in mechatronics. Students will learn how to troubleshoot and repair automated machines and robots, which college officials say is a growing need in the region’s growing tech sector.
Upon completing the program, students should be able to apply for entry-level jobs or continue on with an associate’s degree in the subject. Students will divide their time between online lectures and work they can fit into their own schedule, and attend a series of Saturday laboratories for the hands-on material. Students will also receive lab kits to take home, allowing them to do smaller projects in preparation for the lengthier lab days.
“This is the first kind of a hybrid online environment, so this is a big learning curve for everyone,” said Genevieve Howard, dean of workforce, professional and technical education at the college.
The program is funded by a three-year, $200,000 National Science Foundation grant. This is the first time the NSF has given a grant to the Vancouver community college.
Howard said the program will help fill the local need for advanced manufacturing jobs along the Interstate 5 corridor while offering new ways for students to study the subject.
“We’re just really excited,” Howard said. “It’s a new way of delivery.”
Chris Lewis, chair of the mechatronics technology department, said that while the program was initially designed for students from rural communities, it’s since expanded to cover a wider variety of students in response to the growing demand of companies who need mechatronics professionals.
“What we found is, we have a lot of local work for more rural companies that fits into our scope,” he said.
Some of the program’s 19 students are from the outlying suburbs of Camas, Washougal and Battle Ground — a longer trek to visit campus every day. Some are balancing full-time jobs or families with their studies.
For 57-year-old Wendell MacRae, enrolling in the class represented a chance to start over. MacRae, who received a WorkSource scholarship to enroll in the program — which normally costs about $3,000 — spent his career in software quality assurance. But as the job relied more heavily on programming, a skill MacRae doesn’t specialize in, he was left unemployed.
The Vancouver man hopes studying new skills will allow him to pursue a new career in the region.
“This is kind of their best-kept secret,” MacRae said. “I’m glad I got in early.”
Visit www.clark.edu/cc/ramp for more information about the program, including instructions on how to apply.