Two Oakland Schools students take a look at a programmable thermostat.
ROYAL OAK, Mich. - Three years, several pieces of donated equipment, and a few bumps in the road later, another phase of an ambitious educational project is complete. With the support of manufacturers, local contractors, and educators, the Oakland Technical Campus Southeast in Royal Oak, Mich., has a fully operational HVACR lab.

As readers may remember, The News set out to help establish an HVACR program in a secondary school in the metro Detroit area.

The News was inspired by a project launched by the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI). That endeavor set up an HVACR training program at Custer High School in Milwaukee in order to accommodate the needs of local contractors in finding qualified workers. In order to accomplish the same goal for Detroit contractors, The News decided to take on a similar challenge and enlisted the industry's help to get the job done.

While the HVACR program at Oakland Technical Schools has been teaching students the fundamentals of heating and air conditioning for more than a year, the facility's lab is now up and running and providing hands-on learning.

Rob Featherstone (left) goes over some basic electricity concepts with a student.

A Loaded Lab

Several manufacturers showed their commitment to learning and recruiting young people into the HVACR field by donating several pieces of equipment for the school's lab. The lab now features a boiler, four heat pumps, five R-22 A/C units, and three R-410A units.

Furnaces were donated from Lennox, ComfortMaker, Rheem, Trane, Olsen, and Arcoaire. The lab also has a Pittsburgh machine and metal former for the students to learn sheet metal fabrication.

These donations came in over the three-year period and were installed as soon as construction was completed on the school's lab and study space.

But an unexpected hurdle was encountered when inspectors required that the equipment be installed by a licensed contractor who was not affiliated with the school. This bit of red tape pushed back the unveiling of the lab, as Robert Featherstone, the program's instructor, could not install the equipment himself.

While the lab was under construction, Featherstone, who is also a part-time instructor with Oakland Community College (OCC), was able to get his students access to the college's lab. That way, Featherstone could still give his students hands-on learning while the high school's lab was completed and passed the necessary inspections.

With all of those problems out of the way, a new batch of students is signed up for Featherstone's class. This year, students who are part of the school's construction cluster program have full access to the lab. On the first week of school, students took part in several different trades to find out which program they would like to pursue for the next semester.

After that exploratory week, 17 students enrolled in Featherstone's afternoon class, while 14 more signed up for the program's morning class.

"The addition of the HVACR component to our construction technology cluster not only broadens the skill set for students, but career options as well," said Bonnie Crowson, dean at the Oakland Schools Technical Campus Southeast.

Rob Featherstone (left) instructs two students on the inner workings of a condensing unit in the new lab.

The Present And The Future

The HVACR program recently started its new fall semester and students are currently working on basic electricity.

Topics scheduled for later in the semester include forced air, heating controls, and furnace operations, including gas piping and venting. Featherstone said his students will then explore two types of air conditioning units, R-22 and R-410A.

Second-year students in the program will begin learning heat pump applications, hot water boilers, and sheet metal layouts.

Featherstone is also planning to have software trainers for his students in the future to supplement the lecture portion of the course.

"I also want to add some commercial refrigeration for second-year students," he said.

Featherstone already teaches refrigeration applications. In fact, he offers the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exam for refrigerant handling to any student who wants to take it. He's also looking at offering his students the Industry Competency Exam (ICE) later in the year.

Students also have some opportunities in the course that could help them with their future career path. According to Featherstone, students can earn college credits through an agreement between the Oakland Schools Technical Campus, OCC, and Ferris State University.

Students in the secondary program will earn four credit hours in forced-air heating and three credit hours in sheet metal upon completion of the course. These credits can then be applied to OCC's two-year program, and later transferred to Ferris State's four-year program.

"The employment opportunities are excellent," said Crowson. "Our strong partnership with OCC and Ferris provides students with advanced placement credits towards a college degree."

In fact, some of Featherstone's past students are enrolled in classes at OCC and are actively pursuing a career in the field.

Publication date: 10/25/2004