Normandale Receives NSF Grant to Pilot Innovative Distance Education for Technicians

By Angie Arnold - Grant Development Director

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded an Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant to Normandale Community College to support a new approach to distance education that combines cutting-edge technology with hands-on learning opportunities.

The grant for $793,796 over three years will build on the success of Normandale's unique program in vacuum technology, a vital process at the root of much of today's advanced manufacturing.

"Vacuum technology allows us to conduct research in nanoscience, medical device development, and advanced physics, and is essential to the manufacture of so many products we rely on today, like computers, cell phones, flat-screen TVs, and hybrid cars," explained Del Smith, Normandale instructor in vacuum technology."

The technology that creates a vacuum chamber is in itself complex, requiring specialized knowledge and skills to maintain and repair. According to Smith, "the post-secondary education options for this specialized field are rare, and businesses in many areas of the country don't have options for ensuring employees have the knowledge and skills needed to maintain this vital equipment."

To address these issues, Normandale will use high-definition telepresence technology to deliver vacuum technology courses to students in Greater Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New York. This technology is available on Normandale's campus, and will originate from the Partnership Center.

"Today's videoconferencing has advanced to the point of creating a high-quality experience that feels as if you were talking to someone on the other side of the room rather than the other side of the country," said Nancy Louwagie, project coordinator and Normandale instructor.

For the highly specialized field of vacuum technology, however, students need hands-on opportunities to work with vacuum equipment similar to what they will encounter in the work world. Normandale will design and build a mobile, fully functional vacuum training system that will be provided to each partner educational institution.

Students will be able to participate in real-time distance classrooms, viewing their instructor's demonstrations on-screen and replicating them on the local training system (see photo below). "The approach combines the best of high-tech and high-touch to help students learn," continued Louwagie.

NSF received 235 proposals in this highly competitive program and made approximately 60 new awards. Normandale's previous ATE projects and project concept and plan were cited as strengths of the proposal. NSF reviewers also commented on the experienced project team, including principal investigator (PI) Del Smith (vacuum technology) and co-PI Nancy Louwagie (engineering technology).

"Normandale's vacuum technology program started in 1996 in response to local business needs for a well-educated workforce," stated Julie Guelich, Normandale's vice president of academic affairs. "We are honored and excited to have this opportunity to pilot new methods for bringing this unique program to institutions and businesses in other areas of the country."

"This project exemplifies Normandale's approach to providing an extraordinary education," stated Normandale President Joyce Ester. "It especially highlights our commitment to active engagement for our students, as well as our emphasis on fostering partnerships with other higher education institutions and with businesses to help students apply and integrate what they learn into real-world experiences."

About the National Science Foundation: The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense..." With an annual budget of $7.2 billion (FY 2014), NSF is the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America's colleges and universities. For more information: www.nsf.gov