Learning the basics of welding metal may be the way to land that first job, but what happens when an employer introduces robotics or other automated systems? What happens when a promotion and a raise depend on knowledge in trigonometry because your boss is running pipe at odd angles?
Welding is like many technical professions these days that are increasingly dependent on more advanced skills and knowledge, both to land existing jobs and possess the adaptable learning skills necessary to evolve as these fields change. Today a sustainable technical career can depend on robotics, lasers, computer programming and systems integration. And like so many technical professions, welding draws on and intersects with physics, chemistry, electricity or photonics, computer science and related fields such as materials engineering.
The diverse requirements and principles underlying a technical career illustrate the central role that education institutions like community colleges must play in providing practical training as well as more traditional academic disciplines. Acquiring this integrated knowledge makes it possible for students to expand their technical and conceptual ability to tackle a series of jobs up the ladder and adjust as their skills become outmoded or the economy shifts. How productive is it to learn isolated skills, then lack the learning ability required to advance in a career or switch careers as structural changes demand?
To that end, a growing number of educators recognize that, for example, a course in precision manufacturing provides an opportunity to learn (and get credit for) math or a course in manual welding opens the door to learn (and get credit for) the physics and chemistry involved in bonding metals. It also can be a chance to explore the history of metalworking that dates back thousands of years to the Bronze Age or the economics of an enterprise integral to the functioning of an advanced industrial society—including the construction of railcars and ships, autos and airplanes, skyscrapers and space stations.
This approach—exploring the math, science and history within the context of practical training—makes more integrated and engaging education possible. It also can strengthen the link between the classroom and the needs of the continuously evolving workforce.
Moreover, recognizing the embedded knowledge can bring relevance to subjects like math and science that are often overlooked or avoided. These are the hidden gems in technical education, and capable of inspiring students on the path to building a sustainable career.
The young technicians who land a job fusing metal or operating a lathe may not have set their sights elsewhere. But that first job may soon provide them the opportunity to operate a computer-based automated manufacturing system—and they will be prepared to take that next step (and the one after that). The combination of practical and academic learning will have set them up for success.
Caroline VanIngen-Dunn is the Director of Community College STEM Pathways for Science Foundation Arizona. The National Science Foundation has funded SFAz to work with community colleges (Grant #1450661), particularly those that are designated Hispanic Serving Institutions and those in rural communities. The opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.