Name: Darrel Kesler
Title: Dean, technology division, Ivy Tech Community College Northeast
Program: More than 15 academic programs fall under Kesler's oversight, including advanced automation and robotic technology
Quote: “For a two-year program, we're really quite high-tech.”
Name: Brian Lewandowski
Title: Director, software engineering program, Indiana Tech
Program: The relatively new major prepares students to work in diverse industries, designing software to solutions to employers' problems.
Quote: “You learn best by taking something apart, reverse engineering something.”
Some of the most dedicated students at Ivy Tech and Indiana Tech are the instructors.
The only way schools can equip graduates with up-to-date skills is to make sure instructors master them first, local experts say.
“(Faculty members) spend as much time learning as they do teaching,” said Darrel Kesler, dean of the technology division at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast.
Bob Parker is a good example, Kesler said. Parker, who is the Advanced Automation & Robotic Technology department’s chairman, recently traveled to Germany for advanced training. Another instructor recently took his second course in robotic welding.
Indiana Tech and Ivy Tech woo students with promises of cutting-edge, hands-on instruction that leads to high-paying jobs. Officials maintain strong ties with employers to ensure they can deliver on those claims.
Northeast Indiana employers rely on highly skilled workers to operate expensive factory machinery. Orthopedics, magnet wire and insurance are some of the industries that flourish in the area.
Indiana Tech offers a four-year degree in software engineering. Brian Lewandowski, the program’s director, said the half-dozen students his program graduates each year have all found work as software engineers.
Economic development experts stress the importance of creating a skilled workforce that can entice new companies and encourage existing employers to expand.
But students don’t have to wait for potential new jobs to be created, Kesler said.
“Every person we can put through here who wants to work has guaranteed employment. And a very good job with very good pay,” he said, adding that the wages are often higher than those paid to workers with a four-year degree. For example, he said, someone going into manufacturing machinery technical support can make $40,000 to $50,000 a year.
Lewandowski ensures his students are prepared for jobs by keeping himself current on new computer languages and platforms. In turn, he teaches computer programming fundamentals – things that apply from one language to another.
That’s necessary because although some employers have the newest technology, others have software that is behind by several upgrades.
Indiana Tech created a software engineering degree in about 2005 based on employer input. College officials learned graduates needed more project and communication skills and ability to work on a team.
Computer science is more traditional, research based. Software engineering is more career focused, Lewandowski said.
Each semester, upperclassmen take a class dedicated to doing a project for a local company. Indiana Tech solicits companies to find real-world challenges for students. When none emerges, Lewandowski creates an original problem for students to solve as a team.
Among the local employers that have seized the opportunity are Steel Dynamics Inc. and Indiana Michigan Power.
Students learn from using the company’s computer program and experimenting with the latest products created by Microsoft and other software companies.
Because project-based classes don’t have a curriculum or guidebook, they can incorporate new technologies as soon as they are released, Lewandowski said. Indiana Tech invests in the newest releases, including some that aren’t yet available to the public.
The instructor stresses self-reliance as the best way to find solutions.
“You learn best by taking something apart, reverse engineering something,” he said.
When learning new programs, Lewandowski suggests students go to online forums where people are talking about problems they’ve had with software. He considers reading the owner’s manual almost a last resort.
Ivy Tech classes are also built around hands-on projects for students, who range in age from 18 to 65.
“They’re better prepared when they get out in a work environment,” Kesler said of his school’s graduates.
Many Ivy Tech students work full time. Classes are taught in four-hour blocks: 8 a.m. to noon, 1 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.
Among the community college’s new programs is one in materials technology – that includes working with polymers, ceramics and composites.
The manufacturing sector has embraced 3-D printing, Kesler said. In turn, Ivy Tech is expanding its lab space – more than doubling it in the next year.
A 3-D printer can create an individualized knee replacement that exactly fits a patient instead of pulling one off a shelf and trying to make it fit.
They can even 3-D print a replica human heart – based on detailed medical images – so that doctors can study structural anomalies before surgeries.
“Isn’t that cool?” Kesler asked.
Another advance in 3-D printing involves making parts from metallic powder. The process involves building up a metal part instead of the traditional method of starting with a larger block of metal and drilling or cutting it to remove everything that doesn’t belong in the final product.
A new structure will be popping up on the college campus this year.
Ivy Tech is building a greenhouse, where students will learn to grow crops using hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics and traditional growing methods. This will be an addition to the program and will involve agriculture, culinary and automation students.
Officials expect to be able to start using the $500,000 building in January, Kesler said. It’s entire cost will be paid with private donations.
“For a two-year program, we’re really quite high-tech,” the dean said.
Ivy Tech and Indiana Tech offer such high-tech classes that the instructors could easily transition into industry if they wanted to double or triple their salaries.
But Kesler isn’t worried.
“I have the most dedicated people in the world who love to help young people,” he said. “There’s a passion there.”
Parker, who works with advanced automation and robotic technology, agreed.
“It’s fun watching the students learn,” he said. “Watching the lightbulb come on, watching them get that aha moment. ... Those are your rewards, right there.”