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Chattanooga State Technical Program Students Return to Campus for Hands-On Labs

You can only learn so much from a book — at least that’s what Wade Silvey and his students say.

Silvey is a senior instructor for the machine tool program at Chattanooga State Community College’s Tennessee College of Applied Technology program.

“These are hands-on programs and students have already missed six weeks this semester due to moving online for the coronavirus,” said Jim Barrott, executive vice president at Chattanooga State and head of its TCAT program. “You can only do so much book work, you’ve got to get them on the machines.”

Like most other institutions of higher education, Chattanooga State moved classes online this spring due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Most classes this summer are also still online, even courses for some TCAT programs, and access to campus remains restricted.

Students like those in Silvey’s class have to complete an online health screening questionnaire each morning to be cleared to come onto campus. They are required to wear a face mask — TCAT provided its students with three reusable, washable cloth masks — and classes are limited to nine students and one instructor, in accordance with current federal health guidelines.

Chenaniah Lewis, 23, was eager to get back on campus. The machine tool student is in his last semester of the one-year program and though he caught up on his math and blueprint class and worked on some coding while campus was completely shut down in March and April, he was worried about being able to finish this summer.

“I honestly thought it would end up being pushed until fall, and if it was, I wasn’t sure if I would come back,” Lewis said.

A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Lewis was a gunsmith in the military and hopes to own his own shop one day as well as pursue a further degree after he completes his TCAT certificate program, but he also said he eventually needs to get to work and get a job.

About 95% of Chattanooga State’s TCAT graduates find a job quickly after graduating and Silvey’s students are prepared for high-demand, entry-level machinist jobs at local companies like Fillauer, M&M Mars Industries, Roper Corp. or the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“Normally this class is 95% hands-on,” Silvery said. “We spend maybe 10 minutes in the classroom each day and then we come into the lab.”

Even students’ grades are based on the hands-on work that will prepare them for their chosen industry, Silvey said — grades are 60% things they make using the machines, 20% tests and 20% attendance.

“The decision on who to have in person and who to have online was hard,” Rebecca Ashford, president of Chattanooga State, told the Times Free Press. “Classes like TCAT classes, we were immediately concerned about them. One of the things we really pride ourselves on, one of the reasons our job placement is at more than 95%, is because they know the job. Its because of this hands-on training, we know that. If you’re a welder, you just need to weld. It’s hard to work on repairing a car virtually.”

Still, enrollment is down this summer, Ashford and Barrott both said. TCAT did not admit a summer class for most of its programs in order to be able to limit the number of students in each class.

Enrollment across the college is down about 11%, Ashford said. Usually, community and technical colleges see increased enrollment when the economy is bad and unemployment is high as people go back to school to earn a degree or change careers and young college students choose to save money and stay home. But Ashford said the school isn’t sure what to expect this fall.

“We are planning for the worst and hoping for the best. … We are being incredibly conservative in how we are projecting our numbers for fall and budgeting,” she said.

Campus will remain closed to the public, as well as most students and faculty, through the end of the month. Student-serving and public-facing offices like admissions or financial aid will reopen on June 1. Access to campus will still be limited, and many employees will still work off-campus until at least July 6, according to the school’s “return to campus” plan posted on its website.

And things might still look very different, even when campus reopens, Ashford said.

“I think there are going to be some major changes. I want the community to understand how careful we are being,” she said. “I anticipate we’ll continue with the social distancing, I anticipate that lasting through the summer at least. … The closer we get to fall, the more we will know and the quicker those plans will develop.

“The biggest challenge for fall and for all of this is just the uncertainty,” she said.


SOURCE : Chattanooga Times Free Press, Meghan Mangrum

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