TTC gives its classrooms an interactive upgrade

Story and Photos by Bob Erickson
NTC Communications

WARREN, Mich. – The guys from New York were impressed.

A lesson projected on a SMARTBoard lights up TTC instructors Randy Fenner (left) and Dan Lelawski, who were instrumental in the classroom upgrade project.

“The instructors here are excellent … and we’ve really gotten the best of the best with this new technology,” said Chris Cawley, an apprentice millwright from UAW Local 624 in Syracuse.

Cawley was among a group of 25 eager apprentices from Local 624 who have traveled here to the UAW-DaimlerChrysler Technology Training Center for five weeks of intensive instruction in the generic skills they’ll need in the trades.

They’re in the right place – and at the right time.

The new technology Cawley praised includes a just-completed, high-tech makeover of nine TTC classrooms that are making learning for the skilled tradesmen faster, easier and more efficient. More fun, too.

The classrooms all have been outfitted with surround-sound systems and “SMARTBoards” – interactive whiteboards with a touch-sensitive surface that controls a software-packed computer.

AThe Technology Training Cetner opened at its current site in 200 and now offers more than 80 classes.

SMARTBoards are the latest thing in classroom instruction, but the giant touch screens aren’t cheap, and neither are sound systems that can be heard in every corner of the classroom. So a few months ago, when Gary Kimbel, Assistant Director of the UAW’s DaimlerChrysler Department, and UAW Coordinator Rich Martin began to look into ungrading the classrooms with the sophisticated gear, they had to think outside the box.

The classrooms had been a mess, Martin said. Over the years, as video capability and projectors and computers were brought into the classrooms, it began to look “like you were trying to display a wiring project,” he said. The tangle of cords and jumble of tables was not only confusing but a safety hazard.

UAW Local 624′s Chris Cawley believes training at the TTC is the “best of the best.”

Nothing had been “made to order.” Instructors had to work at a desktop computer, run over to a regular whiteboard to write things down or make a diagram, then turn to a projector – often stacked on books to raise it to the right level – to throw an image on a regular pull-down screen. And all the stand-alone equipment had to be stored away under lock and key every day after class.

Martin and Kimbel turned to their experts: the TTC’s seasoned instructors and a cadre of talented and resourceful skilled trades workers in the Job Bank. Times may be tough right now for automakers and UAW members, but working together to overcome obstacles is a specialty at the Technology Training Center.

Nevertheless, when skilled trades instructor Dan Lewalski of UAW Local 140 and electrical master Randy Fenner of Local 212 approached Martin and Kimbel with the idea of putting SMARTBoards in the classrooms, the cost made the prospect of outfitting every classroom seem remote.

“A representative of a SMARTBoard manufacturer came out to give us a presentation on how to set up a classroom with the boards, mounting projectors on the ceilings and installing surround-sound systems so that everyone in the classroom could hear as well as see the presentations, but the cost was prohibitive,” Martin said.

The Syracuse crew was pleased that the technology made classroom work more efficient and enabled them to have more hands-on shop-floor instruction.

They were looking at $1,600 a room just for sound and some $500 for each set of installation hardware for ceiling projection – not to mention thousands for the  boards themselves and more money for the technicians who would set everything up.

About that time, UAW coordinator Larry Williams had been taking inventory at a UAW-Daimler-Chrysler warehouse when he ran across what he said looked like some “whiteboards with wires.”

The boards, it turned out, were actually SMARTBoards that had been purchased several years earlier for another project that had been shelved. TTC electricians soon figured out how to get them to work, even though there were some missing parts.

It was just the break the project needed. And that’s when the home-grown talent of the TTC staff and the laid-off skilled trades workers in the Job Bank showed what they could do with hard work, years of experience, a lot of ingenuity and some wise shopping.

Instructor Bernial Jefferson sets up a lesson for display on one of the classroom SMARTBoards.

“We wanted to do nine classrooms, and we wanted to do them right,” says Martin. “We wanted ‘no wires,’ ” but still could not afford wireless technology, so the wiring had to be hidden in the walls and ceiling. It was a big project.

A sale at a big box home-electronics store yielded “surround sound systems” with sub-woofers and five speakers each for less than a tenth the cost of commercial systems, a savings that allowed the purchase of more SMARTBoards and some space-saving flat-screen monitors for the computers that run them.

“It’s called the Technology Training Center, after all,” said Martin, “and we wanted them (workers coming to the center) to say, ‘Hey, this place really is high-tech!’ ”

So Lewalski, Fenner and Bernial Jefferson, a Local 869 toolmaker who also is an instructor at the TTC, went to work.

Some of the SMARTBoards that are at the heart of the classroom upgrade project were found in a warehouse and prepared for use by skilled trades workers who are in the Job Bank.

With the Job Bank workers doing the wiring and carpentry work, fabricating specialized hardware, mounting the boards on the classroom walls and mounting the projectors on the ceilings, Jefferson said, “we were up and ready to run in only about a month.”

But, he added, the nine rooms that were outfitted still had to be staffed with “our own UAW trainers.”

They “tutored themselves,” Jefferson said of Fenner and Lewalski, “the only way you can learn to use this stuff is by fooling around with it.” Then they set up a class to train the trainers and build a cadre of instructors who would use the equipment.

Now, Jefferson said, “We absolutely love it. It has really enhanced the classroom setting, and everyone’s excited about it. It’s great because everything’s at your fingertips.”

Moreover, the TTC’s own in-house computer servers allow the boards to be linked together for conferencing as well as Internet and intranet access.

The 4-foot by 6-foot boards that are now the heart of the updated classrooms offer amazingly flexible drawing and color options for diagramming and information presentation.

TTC Instructor Mike Rogowski works with UAW Local 624 apprentice millwright Cris Cawley.

They are basically touch-screen monitors that are able to use a wide variety of software. You can draw on them with a fingertip or drawing tool, turn hand-drawn characters into type-text and change the color of lines or text at a touch.

They allow you to save and print presentations that have been created on-screen, “and the software will remember where the day’s lesson ended and pick up where we left off the day before,” Jefferson said.

The boards are even capable of displaying full-screen video from dvds in the computer or, for three-dimensional objects, from a standard overhead projector.

“We haven’t even begun to use them to their full potential,” Jefferson said. “You can tap in with laptops; the things (the boards and their software) will even read to you.”

The refurbished classrooms are trade-specific, with two for production-worker classes, one for health and safety training and the rest for the skilled trades. Each class is composed of eight to 20 students, and those from Local 624 expressed  real enthusiasm for what the upgraded facilities add to the training.

Instructor Bernial Jefferson with hearing-impaired apprentice Mike Amidon, for whom the new, clutter-free setup in the classrooms is a real aid to learning.

Cawley, the apprentice millwright from Syracuse, was working at a machine on the TTC’s shop floor under the direction of instructor Mike Rogowski, a UAW Local 412 member who’s been at the center for 10 years.

After noting that the combination of great instructors and state-of-the-art technology was really paying off for him, Cawley said that was true “especially in the classroom, where the new board enables us to get through the classwork with a better understanding faster, so we’ll have more time in the shop.”

Mike Amidon, a Local 624 machine repair apprentice who is hearing impaired, also thought the new setup was terrific, but for an additional reason.

Amidon, who was interviewed with the help of a sign-language interpreter brought in by the TTC to help with his training, said the now wide-open classrooms hold a major advantage for him. “You don’t have a machine and a table in the middle of the room (as with the old projectors and computers), so nothing is blocking my view of the teacher (he also reads lips) or the material on the board.”

Dave Romancik Jr. said he’s learned how dangerous the trades can be.

Amidon’s fellow apprentice, Local 624 pipefitter Dave Romancik Jr., was equally enthusiastic about the training, and maybe even a little scared about what he was learning.

Romancik said that just two weeks into his five-week stint at the TTC, he was finding the training “more in-depth than I expected,” but also learning “how dangerous the trades can be.”

It’s great though, he said. “In the workshop, we get a variety of different skills, and the new electronic boards in the classrooms really help. They make the training quicker, more flexible – you can go back and forth” (in the lesson).

And, he said, the technology of the SMARTBoards has made training “more fun and more interesting, too.”

Fenner said a lot of the worker-students had come to feel that way once they got a chance to go hands-on with the electronic marvels.

“One student had a different formula” than the instructor, he said. When he was invited to use the SMARTBoard to show the rest of the class his way of doing things, Fenner added, “he was like a little kid drawing on the board.”

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No one, though, is more pleased with the technology than the instructors. Each wanted to talk about the cababilities of the new machines they had helped bring to the TTC classrooms.

“With software available for the boards that does things like turning handwriting into text and even colored text, our instruction is more efficient,” Fenner said as Bernil chimed in: “And with a connection to the Internet, you get instant access to the most current information.”

“You can move a lot faster … and the boards make everything look a lot more professional,” Lewalski said with apparent pride in the project and a nod to the TTC leadership. Those guys “got behind it … were willing to work to get what we needed … to truly make this the Technology Tra