Ike Coffman is a man with a mission. Inspired by the MATE Center’s recent Summer Institute and bolstered by support from companies in the Houston area and MATE, he’s out to revitalize Alvin Community College’s (ACC) electronics technology program by adding a marine component. Coffman’s vision offers a win-win-win scenario: it will add an exciting component to ACC’s program, help local industry meet its employment needs, and inspire young students about the field of marine technology.
Founded in 1948, Alvin Community College is a public, two-year, comprehensive college located in Alvin, Texas – about fifty miles southeast of Houston. The Department of Electronics Technology, which Ike Coffman chairs, has been part of ACC for many years.
"Alvin Community College’s (ACC) electronics technology program by adding a marine component. Coffman’s vision offers a win-win-win scenario"
Alvin and MATE: A Great Match
The heyday for electronics programs was in the 1980s, according to Coffman. In the 1990s enthusiasm for these programs waned somewhat in the face of the increasing popularity and glamour of computer-related courses.
“I’ve been looking for something to give our program more visibility and more energy,” Coffman explains. “Students want hands-on, applications-oriented work; they don’t want just to sit in the classroom.” ACC has paid attention to that and has added topics such as robotics, electromechanics, and programmable logic devices to its offerings.
Take the students’ interest in hands-on training, add to it a regional shortage of marine technicians, and it’s not difficult to see what led Coffman to attend last July’s MATE Summer Institute (Introduction to Submersible Technology: Teaching this Course at Your School). “Students don't yet know much about the field of marine technology, but a lot of Houston-area employers are looking for trained technicians. At the same time, I was looking for something to differentiate my program from other regional community colleges, so the MATE Center seemed like a good idea,” Coffman says.
A Program in the Making
Coffman and ACC have developed the framework for an A.A. degree program in marine technology; he envisions beginning with twenty or twenty-five students. His program proposal is currently going through the review process. It’s a burdensome procedure, both at the community college and the state levels.
“Because there is a lack of government-level documentation of the need for marine technicians, there are no occupational titles defined for this field,” Coffman explains. “Without specific occupations listed, it’s hard to convince people of the need for training programs.” (The MATE Center is working to remedy this situation; see http://www.marinetech.org/marineworkforce/index.html for information.)
In this climate, industry support is very important, and Coffman is receiving a lot of assistance from the marine technology industry, both local and national. (See details below.) He has also received help from the MATE Center, including using its electronics competencies for marine technology occupations as a guideline for developing his curriculum.
Coffman is excited about the prospect of adding marine technology to his program. “Not only is this a way to develop the hands-on aspect of our program, but the equipment we’ll bring in for the marine courses will benefit students throughout the electronics department,” he says.
Reaching Out to High Schools
Coffman came back from the MATE Summer Institute with energy, ideas, and practical methods to teach others about marine technology. He’s been using all three to reach out to high schools in his area – visiting classrooms to talk about marine technology and encouraging students to participate in a regional ROV design competition that leads up to the national competition in May (see article, p. 4).
“It’s an opportunity to promote marine technology education and awareness, to tell students about the industry’s need for technicians, and to emphasize the importance of taking math and science in high school,” Coffman says. He uses an “ROV in a Bag” presentation developed by educators Kim Swan and Fred Rubin as a result of their participation in MATE’s 2001 Summer Institute.
“The kids love this stuff,” he says. “When I go into classrooms with students who have really turned off from school, you can see in their eyes that they’re excited – they can finally see a reason to study and learn.”
Coffman has also organized a regional ROV design competition with the help of local industry. He expects up to twelve teams from four local high schools to participate in the competition, which will be held at the United Space Alliance’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Industry Plays a Key Role
Coffman’s help from industry isn’t limited to the ROV competition. After attending the MATE Summer Institute, he established an advisory committee to help with the development of his marine technology program. Sonsub, Canyon Offshore, Stolt Offshore, Perry Slingsby Systems, and Oceaneering are represented on that committee.
“It really helps that these companies are giving of both their money and their time,” says Coffman. “When government and community college representatives see that industry will put its money where its mouth is, it encourages them to do the same.” Of course, it’s in the companies’ interest to help: industry has a great need for trained technical workers.
“There’s a trend towards recognizing the value of hands-on work – of people who can fix things,” Coffman says. “I want to be one of the people who not only takes advantage of that trend, but who also promotes it.”
It’s not an easy thing to develop a marine technology program from the bottom up. However, with Coffman’s determination and support from industry and the MATE Center, it’s a good bet this is a mission that will be accomplished.
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