By Stephen Peck
Business technology in the Rockbridge area is advancing, and local educators are taking measures to ensure that their students stay up to speed in changing times.
Officials from Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and Buena Vista’s public school system say they plan to expand their curriculums to transform students into tech-savvy employees.
“It’s not like the old days, where people learned one thing and did it the rest of their life,” said Mike Craft, the Career/Technician Education (CTE) director for Buena Vista schools. “People have to learn to adapt and change with the environment.”
The local environment began to change in a big way Monday when construction began on the Rockbridge Area Network Authority (RANA) broadband network. The $10 million project will bring increased Internet and data streaming capabilities to Rockbridge County.
“This project will provide a significant boost in the infrastructure and will enable more and higher paying jobs in the area,” U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said in a letter that was read at the RANA
According to data from the Virginia Employment Commission, many of those jobs will be in high-technology fields such as healthcare, advanced manufacturing and technical services.
“If the American industry wants to survive, we have to modernize,” Craft said. “We can’t compete with cheap labor unless we raise productivity through technology. And that starts with education.”
Buena Vista Schools Superintendent Rebecca Gates said she tries to stress the importance of technological integration in city schools.
The city releases a “technology plan” every year that outlines what needs to be accomplished in order to integrate technical education capabilities into the schools.
“The skills needed to succeed in education and in the workplace are constantly changing to meet the demands of new technologies. We must prepare our students to face the challenges of these new and exciting technologies,” the technology plan from 2010 said.
A lot of equipment necessary for technical education is already in place in the Buena Vista school system.
Parry McCluer High School’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) lab has two industrial-size HVAC units for students to work on.
The computer-animated drawing and design lab is filled with Apple desktop computers that allow for cutting-edge graphic and video capabilities.
Overall, the CTE department in the Buena Vista school system provides more than 100 computers for student use, most of which are located at Parry McCluer.
Gates says students enjoy working with the high-tech equipment.
“It’s an easy sell to kids. They love technology. It gets them excited about learning,” she said.
Craft said that while students may enjoy the classes, they don’t always see the relevance of what’s being offered.
“Students sometimes don’t see how important some of the things we teach them here can be. They don’t see the real world application,” he said.
Craft said that better broadband means expanded and more efficient instruction.
“Now when I have a whole class downloading a video, the server will slow down or kick people off,” he said. “So hopefully we will be able to do more downloads with broadband in place.”
Craft also said he would like to incorporate more innovative teaching methods, including long distance learning and virtual training programs, once increased internet capabilities are in place.
“We are doing some limited work now with virtual schools. But hopefully we can offer some high technology-type courses through enhanced broadband that we aren’t able to do right now,” he said.
“Good broadband can also mean we don’t have to buy big training mechanisms. Kids can actually go and run tool simulators online without even touching the tool.”
Students’ technical training in Buena Vista does not have to stop after graduation from Parry McCluer. Dabney S. Lancaster has a satellite campus in Buena Vista and offers certification programs for individual skills, in addition to two-year degrees.
Joseph Walker, director of the college’s Rockbridge Regional Center, said that as technology capabilities increase in Buena Vista, course offerings will have to adapt.
“I think if RANA does create high-tech jobs, then our information systems technology program would have to revamp, figure out what’s coming, and try to cater the program to perceived needs,” Walker said.
Walker said that if jobs are created, the college could offer individual certificate programs that would be tailored to a specific skill.
“If a company came in and said, ‘We need people, we need jobs, but we need them to be able to do x, y, and z,’ then we could create a certificate geared just for that,” he said.
Walker said the college has experience creating training programs catered specifically for businesses. He said the college has created employee education programs for companies like MeadWestvaco in the past.
Just as Buena Vista students, and future members of the workforce, continue their education in a technology-driven environment, their instructors are doing the same.
Gates, Craft and other Buena Vista educators will host a panel discussion Feb. 29 entitled “A Vision for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Education.” The program will feature local engineers, Virginia Tech researchers and even NASA employees.
“The discussion will hopefully show us how we can improve [technology-based education],” Craft said. “We want to continue to learn.”