Mechatronics Program Prepares Students for Workforce | Thomas Nelson Community College

Mechatronics Program Prepares Students for Workforce

January 3, 2019
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Jalon Hurst (left) and Sarah Hemler benefited from companies coming to Thomas Nelson to observe the mechatronics classes.

In one of his classes at Thomas Nelson, Jalon Hurst had to help develop a program to move a robotic arm. Several issues arose as he and his classmates got deeper into the project. One of their motors died, and they didn’t have all the relays or tools needed to make it work.

“We had to scavenge parts together and figure out how to make it work,” he said. “We got it working.”

Things came together just in time because representatives from Robinson Engineering of Yorktown were coming to the College’s classroom at New Horizon’s Regional Education Center in Hampton to observe the students' work. Hurst said while his team got the robot working, the project wasn’t as nice as he wanted. That didn’t seem to bother the people from Robinson, who offered him a job shortly after seeing the presentation.

“Jalon basically got hired from (the) robot presentation he did,” said Richard Wilcox, the assistant professor of Thomas Nelson’s mechatronics program.

Wilcox noted it’s not unusual for industry partners to visit the College looking for students to fill vacancies as job placement is a key component of the program.

“Continental called me up and said, ‘We have some openings we’d like to fill. Can we come talk to your students?,’” Wilcox said. “They told me what they were looking for and asked for students with that skill set. … They hired a couple of them right on the spot.”

Other companies also have contacted Thomas Nelson.

“Canon called up and said they had a few positions,” said Wilcox, who noted the company has a history of success with Thomas Nelson alums.

Representatives from Canon visited Thomas Nelson to see what the students' work. One of those students who impressed was Sarah Hemler.

“They hired her pretty quick,” Wilcox said.

Hemler had always wanted to work at Canon, but the path to there from York High School included a detour through Charlottesville. She attended the University of Virginia for three years before health issues forced her to return home. She plans to return to U.Va., but enrolled at Thomas Nelson in fall 2017 “to brush up on my engineering skills,” she said. She is pursuing an associate degree in engineering and a Level I certificate in industrial maintenance.

She started working for Canon in late November. What she really liked about the visit by Canon was the personal interaction. She was able to talk with the production manager face to face, hand a resume directly to someone, and discuss details and expectations of the job opening.

“When she got the job, she was actually in here when they called her, and she started hopping up and down she was so happy,” Wilcox said.

As a cartridge maintenance technician at Canon, Hemler does small repairs and helps operate some of the machines on the cartridge manufacturing lines.

“I do want to go a little bit more into research and development,” she said. “My dream job is essential up from here.”

She’s been interested in engineering “ever since I was very, very little,” and prefers mechanical engineering.

“(You) have to be a jack-of-all trades. They have to know a little electrical, a little bit chemical,” she said. “I’ve always had a wide range of curiosity in terms of my learning. I like to keep myself engaged.”

Hurst, a homeschooler who also grew up in Yorktown, is a traveling engineer at Robinson. In his first month on the job, he was sent to Las Vegas, though most of his trips are to North Carolina and Northern Virginia.

“I had to troubleshoot a sushi machine,” he said. “It was a conveyor system and I had to figure out why it wasn’t scanning the plates properly.”

He has been working at Robinson since June and hopes to continue his education at Old Dominion University when he’s done at Thomas Nelson after about three more semesters. He’s working on two associate degrees in engineering.

Both credit their experiences at Thomas Nelson to their success.

“The program as a whole, I love,” Hurst said. “The instructors are great. They know what they’re talking about. They know what they’re teaching you, and they want you to learn.”

Hemler couldn’t single out a favorite part of the mechatronics program at the College.

“A few things that spring to mind is I’m happy with the relatively small student-to-teacher ratio; there’s a lot of direct contact with the professors; and I really like the hands-on experience,” she said.

Wilcox, along with mechanical engineering instructor Stephanie Cruz, take pride in the latter aspect of the program, which started in October 2015 with just three students but has grown to more than 30.

“We try to give them actual field experience,” said Wilcox, adding a lot of the equipment in the training center is the same equipment company sponsors have throughout the world. “This is real world equipment that (the big companies) use. It’s not just training equipment. … We want them to have hands-on experience.”

Cruz said it’s much more than learning from a textbook.

“You actually have to do it,” she said.

Added Wilcox: “Our goal is have them ready to go to work.”

As Robinson Engineering, Canon and other companies can attest, that goal is being met.

"The mechatronics program has given students the hands-on, as well as the academic, foundation to meet Canon Virginia’s workforce needs," said Rhonda Bunn, the director of human resources and public relations for Canon. "Students coming out of the program have skills to succeed and meet our advanced manufacturing demand and are very prepared to learn about Canon’s equipment and processes. Canon has hired numerous students from the program and looks forward to interviewing future graduates."