FSU Awards ‘First Ever' Online Degree

June 26, 2006
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The importance of online learning in the HVACR trade hit a new milestone recently with the graduation of the first student in the Ferris State University (FSU) online HVACR program (see the sidebar "Online Program Facts" below). The event was marked with a ceremony where student Mike Curcio of Lewiston, N.Y., was presented with his bachelor's degree certificate from Mike Feutz, FSU HVACR chairperson.

Feutz recently followed up with Curcio in an interview to get his impression of the distance learning experience and how it has helped him in his desire to advance his career after spending 35 years in the HVACR trade.

Curcio started as an apprentice, working for a local commercial/industrial refrigeration contractor before forming his own company in 1976.

In 1979, he was offered a position with the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and is currently in charge of the HVAC department there.

Curcio completed his AAS Mechanical Degree at a local community college prior to enrolling in the FSU program. The NYPA has afforded him the opportunity to travel the United States to attend various seminars and visit manufacturers' training facilities. He said that with the completed FSU degree, his next area of focus would be a P.E. license, which he is currently studying for.

"As a student in the first program, Mike was one of the pioneers in the covered wagon, heading out West," said Feutz. "He experienced the problems that go along with a startup program, some which we never could imagine."

But with the kinks worked out, Curcio persisted - and had some thoughts on the program that he wanted to share with NEWS' readers via the interview with Feutz.

GETTING HIS FEET WET

Curcio first learned about the program when he read an advertisement in a 2002 issue of the RSES Journal. His interest was piqued because he wanted to use his years of experience to gain a formal degree in HVACR. "I also wanted to advance within the NYPA and saw this program as an opportunity to accomplish my goal," he said.

The NYPA offers tuition reimbursement for their employees and closely monitored Curcio's academic efforts. Most recently, the company created a new HVAC engineering position for Curcio as a result of successfully completing the FSU program.

"Needless to say, I am excited about this news and feel that the time and effort was certainly worthwhile," he said.

Learning while working full-time can be a big obstacle to getting an advanced degree, but the online program made it a lot easier for Curcio.

"The online format afforded me the ability to continue my full-time position at NYPA," he said. "Compared to the conventional brick and mortar format, I was able to complete my weekly assignments around my work schedule, which does vary from time to time.

"I maintained the ability to work overtime, when asked, without the anxiety of missing a class. All in all, it not only worked out well for myself, but for my fellow classmates in similar situations."

Curcio, along with his cyber classmates, had a variety of technical content to learn, as well as general education classes. Some of the training that he enjoyed the most included hydronics, load calculations, and energy auditing.

"Having spent several years working on closed loop chilled water systems, this program tied in all of the various aspects I deal with on a daily basis and then went a step beyond," he said.

"I gained a heightened awareness of pump sizing, configurations, variable-speed pumping systems, and the pump selection process.

"With respect to load calculations, I found these exercises to be extremely valuable. In my current position at NYPA I deal primarily with facility operations. I do not normally have an opportunity to size equipment whereas this program did just the opposite. I can think of three separate occasions where each student had to review drawings and develop a comprehensive overview of each facility and its respective loads."

Curcio also liked the idea of putting down his calculator and learning about some nontechnical issues through the general education courses.

"It was actually refreshing to focus on other things like creative writing and cultural issues," he said.

"My communication classes were extremely valuable in the sense that now I find myself listening more effectively and articulating my thoughts more succinctly."

And his classmates? It took a little while for Curcio to get used to the fact that he wasn't in a classroom setting with other people, able to physically interact with them.

"We established our own style of communications such as e-mail, cell phones, and snail mail," he said. "Often times we would phone each other to discuss assignment strategies and delegate various duties when working on a group project.

"I have made several new friends whom I still remain in touch with. I hope this continues well into the future as these individuals all possess vast amounts of experience and knowledge in the HVACR industry."

Did Curcio miss the face-to-face interaction with other students? "At this point in my life, I am focused on getting the job done," he said.

"That said, face-to-face interaction would certainly have streamlined our efforts given the fact that many of my fellow classmates had similar goals and work ethics."

GETTING SUPPORT FOR HIS EFFORTS

The loss of face-to-face interaction didn't stop Curcio from broadening his own horizons. He learned a lot from the experiences of fellow students.

"I thoroughly enjoyed listening to fellow classmates and the day-to-day tasks/projects that they are working on," he said. "I was very fortunate to be aligned with some very talented and responsible individuals whose talents have placed them in their current respective environments.

"I conferred with a select few to discuss issues that I was experiencing in my own workplace. It was refreshing to know that others were experiencing similar problems and what their solutions were."

Curcio was grateful that he could spend time online talking with his teachers, too. He wished the communication lines could have been open more, but he was happy with the help he received.

"The weekly chats proved to be helpful in that a block of time was dedicated to participation and interaction between professors and fellow students," he said.

Although most of the training comes from online instruction, each student is required to attend mandatory laboratory training at the Granger Center on the campus of FSU in Big Rapids, Mich. This experience gives students the necessary hands-on training and the opportunity to finally personally interact with cyber classmates and faculty.

"I think the on-campus lab is an excellent forum to not only see and touch the equipment we studied, but to meet fellow classmates face-to-face," said Curcio.

"It was a bit awkward at first, but the guys soon found some common ground and worked as a team. It also gave one the opportunity to put a face with a name and share some industry related ideas/solutions."

Curcio commented on the obvious differences between an online education and classroom training. "When comparing the two, online versus campus programs, I believe that an online student requires more self-discipline and dedication in order to be successful," he said.

"Everyday life poses many distractions and one has to rise above those temptations and really focus on the course material at hand.

"Traditional brick and mortar settings dictate a time and place whereby a student will attend class and receive real time instruction. Also, feedback is instantly available along with interaction with fellow students."

"Aside from the flexibility the online program had to offer, I enjoyed the years of knowledge and experience the faculty brought to the table. This department has grown to include several individuals who have been in various aspects of the HVAC industry and are willing to share and mentor those who apply themselves.

"At this point in my life, I think I would have chosen the online route. I would add that I would have enjoyed more on-campus lab work in the spirit of being a team player and in the process, fostering work habits conducive to real work team environments."

No story would be complete by just painting all of the positive aspects of the FSU HVACR online program. Being the prototype means there are kinks to work out, and Curcio did admit that he didn't like everything about the program.

"The one thing that I liked least about the course dealt with learning multiple manufacturer's [software] programs in order to complete assignments. Although they proved in the end to be very valuable tools, the software is a bit difficult to navigate through when one is not on campus.

"We could only imagine that the on-campus students were receiving personalized instruction in the classroom. We, on the other hand, spent many hours stumbling through menus with little confidence in our results."

But Curcio remains confident that he made the right choice when he enrolled in the program and eventually became its first graduate.

"I feel that the entire FSU HVACR department is staffed with individuals who are both dedicated and focused on providing the students with a quality education," he said.

"This is an excellent program and one that I would feel very comfortable recommending to incoming students."

Sidebar: Online Program Facts

BIG RAPIDS, Mich. - If students have an associate degree in HVACR Technology, they can complete requirements for their bachelor's degree online. Working from home or office, students will hone their expertise in:

  • System selection and design

  • HVAC equipment and selection

  • Load calculation

  • Energy audit and analysis

  • System commissioning (test, adjust, and balance)

  • Direct digital control.

    Online, and in required on-campus lab experiences, students will be taught by the same instructors who have guided this program to first-place finishes in worldwide ASHRAE competitions over the last five years.

    The FSU Granger Center, HVACR's new home, operational in 2003, is an $18 million, 27,000 square foot technology center that houses more than $1 million in laboratory equipment. It provides campus and visiting online students with a comprehensive and advanced state-of-the-art facility.

    For information on the online and campus bachelor's degree program, call 800-562-9130 or visit www.ferris.edu/ucel.

    Publication date: 06/26/2006

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