Enrollment Growth from Mechatronics Grant Leads to Creative Approach to Add Faculty

Posted by on .

Central Virginia Community College Assistant Professor Marcella Gale is working with manufacturing and telecommunications companies to ease people with industry knowledge into teaching mechatronics at the college in Lynchburg, Virginia.

During their first semesters teaching, the adjunct instructors from industry contribute to the course content and share teaching and administrative tasks with a full-time instructor. This “on-boarding” arrangement allows the adjuncts’ expertise to shine with students as they learn college classroom management from a full-time faculty member.

Adjunct Instructor Brad Fitzgerald demonstrates concepts he taught in class while students tour Fleet Laboratories.

This experiment at the core of Gale’s Manufacturing, Adjuncts, Partnerships, and Students (MAPS) project began in summer 2022, and by May 2023 five people with manufacturing experience had become newly minted adjunct instructors.

Gale describes the co-teaching model as “really working out great,” and adds that it’s happening because industry has “come along side us as a true partner.”

CVCC needs additional instructors because of the high demand for graduates from the mechatronics program that Gale’s first ATE grant improved with an enhanced focus on programmable logic controllers (PLCs).  That project, Improving Mechatronics Technician Training for the Advanced Manufacturing Industry, has resulted in braided manufacturing and information technology (IT) courses that count toward multiple stackable certificates and two associate degrees. Both programs prepare students for Rockwell Automation industry certification exams as well.

Despite the challenges with enrollment during the Covid-19 pandemic and the tight labor market in recent years, enrollment has grown in CVCC’s mechatronics and electrical technology-computer technology programs. The number of AAS mechatronics graduates more than doubled from 22 in fall 2019 to 49 in spring 2023. The number of AAS graduates in computer and electrical technology-computer networking was 19 in fall 2019 and 27 in spring 2023. Overall enrollment in the two AAS programs, which also award stackable certificates, was 74 in 2023 compared to 41 in 2019.

CVCC is the only Virginia community college to have a dual-enrollment magnet high school on its campus. Enrollment in the STEM Academy’s mechatronics fundamentals track has also grown since 2019 when 16 high school juniors and seniors took mechatronics courses.  This spring 27 seniors graduated with high school diplomas and STEM Academy certificates; 11 students also earned 16 credits toward mechatronics associate degrees.  

Fleet & Framatome among CVCC’s Many Industry Partners

Industry drove the tight link between the two ATE projects.

Gale explained the first grant “elevated the presence of mechatronics in the community so the industry partners were aware of what we had going on.”  

The industry partners for that ATE project then asked Gale to expand the mechatronics program and listened when she explained the challenge involved with growth:  “I can’t increase class sizes unless I have more teachers. A lot of my class sizes are seat-limited because of equipment, like the PLCs, robots, motors, trainers, or whatever. I can’t add more students to each class. I need to add more classes. Danny and I are already maxed, maxed, maxed. We’re teaching the absolute overload limit the state allows, so if you want me to add sections I need some help.” (Danny Murphy is a mechatronics faculty member and co-principal investigator of the MAPS project.)

Industry’s response, she said, “has been fantastic.”

Manufacturing & IT “All Tangled Up Together”

Now that manufacturing and IT “are all tangled up together,” Gale said, having adjunct instructors who share their knowledge and experiences from advanced technology workplaces enriches the program.  

For instance, Brad Fitzgerald, who taught his first semester as an adjunct instructor in spring 2023, took students enrolled in the preventive and predictive maintenance course to the Fleet Laboratories facility he manages. During the tour he reinforced concepts he had been teaching.

“It was great....It really gave us an opportunity for them to see and put their hands on, if you will, to see ‘Oh, this is a boiler, this is a chiller.’” He spent time pointing out critical features on pumps and motors to reinforce lessons about the importance of shaft alignment, and showed them how the computerized maintenance management system works in action.

In the maintenance shop the students saw “bearing presses, mills, and lathes and all the types of maintenance equipment to do the job, things to do preventive and predictive maintenance.”  He also showed them new packaging lines. “They really got to see some automation in action. It was pretty nice,” he said.

Fleet has been a partner of CVCC’s mechatronics program since Gale started it in 2017. In addition to Fleet personnel participating in the program’s advisory board, the company provides paid internships to students and hires CVCC graduates.

Fitzgerald, who earned electrical technology and HVAC certificates and an associate of arts degree from CVCC several decades ago, said teaching is something he had been thinking about as a way to give back to the community. He participates on the CVCC industry advisory board and says Gale “has just done an awesome job.” She recruited him to teach and then she and Murphy were “a tremendous help” during his first semester teaching.

“I have a new-found respect for teachers now,” Fitzgerald said. He is looking forward to teaching again in spring 2024 and endorses the MAPS project goal of bringing more adjunct instructors on from industry.

“I think that definitely having some qualified adjuncts over there will definitely enhance the program and its credibility,” Fitzgerald said.  

Nuclear Technology Program Now Aligns with Mechatronics  

The improvements to the mechatronics and IT curricula proved to be helpful in 2022 when CVCC and Framatome revised the special program for its nuclear maintenance technicians. The revamped program launched in May 2023 as the Nuclear Technology Academy with an AAS curriculum that aligns with the mechatronics degree.

“It’s like a half mechatronics, half machine-tool degree with some nuclear classes thrown in. Where ever we can cross-pollinate with the mechatronics classes it just helps everything. It helps them advertise [the Nuclear Technology Academy] to their classmates and it helps me fill classes. It’s just a great synergy,” Gale said.  

Nuclear technology degree enrollment is not restricted to Framatome employees, but those who are hired to become part of Framatome’s Nuclear Technology Academy are paid full-time wages and benefits during their semesters on campus taking courses. As of early August, Framatome has enrolled 38 people in the the Nuclear Technology Academy compared with nine who were enrolled in the previous program in 2022. An additional eight students have enrolled in the nuclear technology degree program with the hopes of being selected for the academy.

Other companies are covering employees’ tuition in mechatronics and other programs. Gale said the ATE projects have contributed to goodwill between employers and the college, noting that 75 people committed to attend industry advisory board meetings weeks in advance. She had four advisory board meetings before the start of the fall semester. 

“They’ll come because they know we’re doing what they ask us to do. They know we are a great broker of resumes for them. We know the students; we know the industries. So we make targeted recommendations to our partners because we know who’s going to fit in with the culture and the work and the expectations and all that,” Gale said.  

  • education
  • engineering
  • technology
    ATE Impacts
See More ATE Impacts


There are no comments yet for this entry. Please Log In to post one.