Many contractors and instructors will tell you that the key to better technicians is to make hands-on training readily available. Instructors are so fixated on the idea that many are always actively looking for equipment and simulators to add to their lab. But the key may be to get those students out of the classrooms and labs, and into the community.

One hvac instructor, known only as Lindy to his peers, has seen the value in taking the curriculum outside the school walls.

Lindy has been an instructor at Northwest Technical College in Wadena, MN, for the last four years. Previously, Lindy worked a number of years for Lennox. Over the course of his hvac career, he says that he has seen the same thing time and again: “Over the past 25 years, I have hired tech school grads and they weren’t ready. I know what I wanted them to know. Tech school grads you want installing.”

This is why Lindy decided to get his students more actively involved in what they were learning. From helping to install the hvac equipment into a Habitat for Humanity house, to fixing room air conditioners free of charge, Lindy has been finding creative and new ways to get his students into the community to apply what they have learned.

In fact, this attitude has become a focus in recent years for colleges and universities across Minnesota.

Learning By Doing

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) is a network of two-year and four-year state colleges and universities. For several years, MnSCU has been encouraging a concept known as “Learning by Doing.”

The Center For Teaching and Learning is an MnSCU organization that tries to find new and innovative ways for instructors to teach their classes. One way of doing this has been to embrace the learning by doing idea.

Cathryn Kelley, faculty development coordinator for the center, says that the concept has been a focus within MnSCU for quite some time. Recently, programs have been developed to push the idea. For example, Campus Compact is an organization that promotes service learning on college campuses. The organization suggests that faculty members give their students the opportunity to learn by going out into the community and working in their field of study.

Also, the state of Minnesota has the Bush Foundation, which has been awarding grant money to schools and instructors for some time. By working with the foundation, MnSCU was able to create the Learning By Doing grant. Under this grant, money is awarded to teachers who are looking to instruct their students in more interactive ways.

Many fields of study in the Minnesota schools have taken part in this opportunity, from history to social work to hvac. Last year, 50 such grants were distributed throughout the state.

Kelley says that to be eligible for the grant, “students have to be doing something beyond mimicking what they’ve been taught.”

This means that teachers must find ways that get students to interact in their major; some teachers stress service learning. While the learning by doing people are in the classroom doing activities, the service learning students are out of the classroom learning their trade while being an asset to the community. This is the route that Lindy has taken with his students.

Better Techs

Even before Lindy was aware that grant money was available for Minnesota instructors looking to more actively train and educate their students, he was out doing it. Within the past four years, Lindy has offered a few different projects for his students. The most popular has been the housing projects through Habitat for Humanity, in which the class is still currently involved. Lindy helps out the organization by taking his students to install the heating and ventilation in these new homes.

Lindy has also helped Larry Barber, housing developer for the Wadena Community Action Council. Barber has allowed Lindy to help with the installation in several stress panel homes.

Barber says that his organization is non-profit and Lindy’s help is greatly appreciated.

“It’s a cost savings to us, and it gives students on-the-job training,” Barber said. “I think this is better than having them sit in the class.”

Also, on a few occasions, Lindy has helped out area contractors when they needed workers. His students lent a hand to the contractors in exchange for some extra training and practice. Finally, Lindy has even taken his students to fix the room air conditioners at an area retirement home. Lindy says that this particular project pleased the elderly residents and also gave the students the satisfaction of giving back what they have learned.

When Lindy found out about the grant, he applied for it and received over $9,000 to use in his program. With the extra money, Lindy’s program was able to hire another instructor and purchase more tools. With these new additions, Lindy has been able to split his class into two groups and let them work on different houses. The smaller number of students for each house allows them to do and learn more.

Besides helping in the community, Lindy says that this opportunity has far-reaching advantages.

“If you train students on simulated equipment in a lab, they want to come back to it. You have to get them out there and do installations and ask them what to do next, because every job is a little different,” Lindy said.

With this training, Lindy points out that the students are more competitive in the job market after graduation. He says that through the program he is “graduating a student out of a two-year program who can put on a résumé that they have been directly involved in a lot of installations.”

He also says that the opportunity can make hvac programs much more appealing to prospective students. “It’s hard to see outside your own academic world,” Lindy says. He points out that more individuals will be willing to sign up for a class that does actual installations, as opposed to one that doesn’t reach outside the classroom.

Lindy recommends that more instructors try what he is doing, emphasizing that there are several grants available to help. He also says that his students are proof that getting out of the classroom works. “The students love the work day. They will give you allegiance because they are actually out doing something.”

Publication date: 11/20/2000