STEM, creativity hallmarks of new CVTC program

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Mahmood Lahroodi, the Mechanical Design instructor at Chippewa Valley Technical College's River Falls campus, likes his small team. The students worked together to design and construct a four-bar mechanism that turned rotary motion into linear motion driven by an electric motor in their major project for the first semester of the program, which started last August.

"Alex (Husfloen) found some problems in the design that others didn't see; Tyler (Kupczak) found a way to design the mechanism to make it more useful with different motors; and Eric (Wolle) found ways to present what the group had done," Lahroodi said.

They could be on their way to careers focused on the design of parts used in production in a mechanical setting. With components of CVTC's Machine Tooling Technics and Manufacturing Engineering Technology programs, Mechanical Design students learn computer-assisted design (CAD) with programs like SolidWorks widely used in industry. Available jobs include mechanical drafting and commercial or industrial designer.

Employer demand for workers is the reason CVTC re-started the program in the fall 2017 semester after it had been dropped several years ago, offering the program at both the Eau Claire and River Falls campuses. Eighteen students enrolled at the Eau Claire program, with Lahroodi's group of three students at River Falls.

"About two years ago, local companies approached us about bringing back Mechanical Design," said Jeff Sullivan, CVTC dean of skilled trades and engineering. "They had been hiring people from outside the area or hiring people from other programs and trying to develop them in the job. Jobs data shows salaries would be around $24 an hour," Sullivan said.

"There is a great need for mechanical designers in the area," said Shane Sullivan (no relation to Jeff), instructor and program director. "We set up an advisory committee and went around to business and industry. They all said they were ready to hire for internships right now."

Mechanical Design is considered a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field, but with a twist.

"You need to know how materials work, how forces work and how machines work," Shane Sullivan said. "But there is a creative part too. It's about taking ideas and making them a reality."

"We had three core program courses in the first semester, Mechanical Design Concepts, Solid Modeling I and Manufacturing Materials and Processes," Lahroodi said. "For the courses, we designed projects to design tools and processes."

A simple early project was a box containing four bolts of different sizes. Students had to design a single tool that could loosen and tighten all four.

"In a more advanced class, a project may be designing a transmission," Shane Sullivan said. "We designed the program around problems, with students seeking solutions."

"In Manufacturing Processes we created a poster showing entire manufacturing processes. We're going to make it publicly available on the internet," Lahroodi said.

Lahroodi's students see the program as a next step toward improving their lives.

Husfloen, a 2009 Ellsworth High School graduate from El Paso, enrolled at CVTC after three years in the military, followed by manufacturing work in Red Wing.

"I decided to go back to school because I was tired of factory work," Husfloen said. "I looked at the programs at CVTC and found this as something I was more interested in doing, and with job outlooks."

"I was looking for something to do to get back in the workforce," said Eric Wolle of Baldwin, who had been a stay-at-home parent. "I was interested in the design and drafting."

Wolle has a background in cell phone repair and had started his own business until it became a victim of the last economic downturn.

"I am used to dealing with technology," Wolle said. "Hopefully, this will get me started on a career."

For Kupczak, a 2013 Somerset High School graduate, the CVTC program provides an opportunity to get a planned career in engineering back on track.

"I went to the University of Missouri-Kansas City to study mechanical engineering, but with some financial difficulties, I had to come back here," he said.

Kupczak started taking liberal arts classes at CVTC while working.

"I was looking to try more engineering-related classes and thought Mechanical Design was a step in the right direction. I want to do some of the analytical-mathematical- technical things," he said.

Kupczak plans to attend UW-River Falls next and work toward his bachelor's degree. Lahroodi

understands why going on to a university is an attractive option for students.

"But our advisory committee members said they need mechanical designers and want us to ask our students to come to see them after they graduate rather than go for a bachelor's degree," Lahroodi said. "They need associate degree designers now."