Programs prepare students for West Slope jobs

Even as Mesa State College has expanded its facilities and enrollment, the college also has expanded the number of programs that prepare students for careers in Western Colorado. Students can now study to become managers in the construction and energy industries as well as entrepreneurs.

At a time when the college is prepared for a rapid decline in state funding, instructors at the Mesa State community college branch also are preparing students to manufacture products and sell them Such efforts could pull in revenue for the college, much as similar efforts do at private research colleges.

Students at Western Colorado Community College (WCCC) are working on a project to convert gasoline and propane engines to run on compressed natural gas. Honda donated the engines. Students also create electronic circuit boards and troubleshoot to determine which parts to replace when systems fail. Still other students take courses that focus on green energy. The college uses grant money to fund some programs and continues to seek grants to fund more efforts.

And there’s a strong link between the community college and local entrepreneurs.

“We have advisory committees of business people who tell us what to do,” said John Sluder, assistant technical professor of technology integration at WCCC, during an energy briefing hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, efforts are under way in Mesa County School District 51 to provide more instruction in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to younger students. Sluder said there’s an effort to reach students in seventh and eighth grades with more STEM courses.

Mesa State College works with School District 51 to offer students opportunities to earn college credits before they graduate from high school.

Sluder and Martin Chazen, an adjunct professor at WCCC, spent the bulk of their presentation at the chamber briefing describing energy related projects.

The process systems technology program offers training for jobs in the oil and natural gas exploration and production industry. PST courses provide training in electrical engineering and thermal control.

Students can earn an applied science degree in two years. Students also can progress to earn a bachelor’s degree from the landman-energy management program at Mesa State, where they can see presentations from energy industry professionals and secure internships working in the sector.

Training in process control systems also can lead to careers in food and beverage processing or water and wastewater treatment.

“They can apply these skills across many industries,” Chazen said of students enrolled in the programs.

WCCC also hones computer skills. By learning to use a programmable logic controller (PLC), students understand how to control machines through computers. Such systems are useful in harsh environments, including winters in the natural gas fields of the Piceance Basin in Western Colorado.

“We’re trying to give them a broad range,” Chazen said. “It’s not easy to get through.”

Sluder said knowledge of computer systems is important because of the prevalence of such systems. He said many older business people simply assume young college students have good computer skills.

“No, they don’t,” he said. While they might spend hours in front of computer and video screens, students aren’t up to speed on the business application of computers, he added.

Students also have opportunities to learn the intricacies of electric currents and magnetism.

Students learn to work individually and as members of a team, helping prepare them for situations they’ll face in the workplace, Sluder said.

As the baby boom generation of scientists and engineers retires, there’s concern about how to replace them. For every three people retiring from such technical professions, one skilled graduate is entering the work force, Sluder said.

Sluder said WCCC accepts all applicants who hold high school degrees or have passed the general educational development (GED) test.

“We’re the last best chance for a student to get a higher education,” Sluder said, adding the opportunity also draws nontraditional, or older, students to campus. Nontraditional students comprise about 40 percent of enrollment, a proportion that’s expected to grow to 60 percent within a few years.

For traditional and nontraditional students alike, the expanded programs at Mesa State and WCCC could constitute an important step in efforts to train people for high-tech jobs that will be available over the next couple of decades.

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