UAFS regional workforce program brings robot, IT programs to area high schools

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,071 views 

A robot on the floor of ABB's manufacturing plant in Fort Smith.

At Charleston High School, eight students have designed the barista of the future. Gunner Heft, Mason Keener, Ryan Keener, Andrew Kimmell, Hayden Pittman, Mary-Ashley Qualls, Garrett Phillips, and Dalton Ripley didn’t just envision a world with a coffee-serving robot. They built one.

Using a robot arm and careful programming, they were able to load a Keurig cup, commence brewing, and serve in less than five minutes.

As part of the inaugural Robot Automation class, the students used equipment and materials provided by the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. UAFS attained an Arkansas Department of Higher Education grant that would lead to the future robotic coffee shop employee, and while it’s not quite as fast or friendly as the real thing, it gets the job done while offering a hint of where such jobs could be heading in the not-so-distant future.

“The fact of the matter is, salaries and wages are increasing. Technology is getting less expensive, and anything that can be automated in the next decade or so will be,” Dr. Ken Warden, dean of the college of applied science and technology at UAFS, told Talk Business & Politics in a recent interview. “We’re going to continue to see these jobs that are in dangerous environments or jobs that are repetitive be handled with automation and smart technologies.”

That’s where the robot automation and its sister cyber systems programs come into play. UAFS received two planning grants for two-year, $1 million programs ($2 million altogether). The university is pursuing other grants for phase two implementation and is working toward self-sustaining cost-share programs with participating districts to continue the programs indefinitely. Warden said the two programs are designed to complement the university’s long-running Western Arkansas Technical Center (WATC), which welcomes students from outlying schools to take concurrent-credit college courses while working toward their high school diploma.

One key difference from WATC: the new programs take place at the participating districts instead of on the UAFS campus.

The courses utilize UAFS instructors, who teach the courses as part of the regular school day. The robot automation program launched in the 2016-2017 school year with Charleston, Greenwood, and Southside High Schools. Since that time, Booneville and Van Buren High Schools have joined, utilizing accompanying funds from grants through the Guy Fenter Educational Cooperative and Arkansas Department of Career Education. On the Cyber Systems side, pilot schools were Alma, Northside, and Van Buren High Schools. Future School of Fort Smith and Greenwood have joined since, and Van Buren added the Robot component for the 2017-2018 School Year for a total of eight participating schools.

As part of the programs, UAFS has delivered executive mentorship programs to each district. Partner companies include ABB/Baldor Electric, ArcBest, the Arkansas Air National Guard 188th Wing, Arkansas Army National Guard, Arvest, Hickory Springs Manufacturing, Pernod-Ricard, Trane Custom Commercial, Walmart Technologies, and Weldon, Williams, & Lick.

“We have people from our partner companies that go to talk to students every week,” Warden said, adding that the programs would likely move to once every two weeks soon. “And that’s because we were ambitious in the first year, and it looks like our sweet spot maybe twice a month. You get a feel for it. We’re trying to hone this in over the life of the grant to make it systematic and standardized.” Warden said the goal is for a student to have “a year of college under their belt in a very high-wage field” by the time they leave high school. “That way, their time to degree is less, cost-of-degree is less, and we’ve put them in touch with many opportunities for employment through this mentoring program.”

Industry partners also provided information on degree attainment to job to wage, specific to the Fort Smith region, Warden said, so “when we talk about average wages, we’re not talking about what someone is going to make in Europe or Anchorage, Alaska, or wherever that job may be outside of here. We ask them to say, ‘Okay, with these skill sets with the one-year degree, two-year degree, four-year degree, in these areas, what jobs are available in your companies now, and what can a student expect to make in the Fort Smith region.”

Beyond job-specific mentorship, programs director Amanda Seidenzahl said “they’re networking with the students, so not only are they talking about what’s going on in their industry, but they’re also helping with soft skills and talking with them.”

“These are decision-makers in their companies. We have plant managers; we have engineers, we have HR folks that are in there. They’re connecting with the students and sharing what they would want to invest in for an employee. So these students are not only making a connection with their classroom skills but also learning what they need to do if they want jobs at those companies,” Seidenzahl said.

Whether the Charleston students end up working in either field or for any of the partner companies remains to be seen, but they have valued their two years in the program.

“I’ve been interested in engineering, and it just seemed like a good opportunity because it’s college credit, too,” said junior Mary-Ashley Qualls, one of the eight students who helped develop Robot Barista. “Free college is always a good thing, definitely; but I thought it would be a good opportunity to see if this were something I’d be interested in.”

For student Mason Keener, it’s “a mixture of availability of college credit and learning a skill set for any work that we might do” that motivated him. “This could transfer over to a lot of different categories of education.”

Hayden Pittman, whose family works in industrial settings, encouraged him toward manufacturing, “but I didn’t want to be a floor worker,” he said. “I want to be in something that challenges me and helps me have fun. This (class) is fun for me because I love technology. It’s always been what I’ve loved … and it seems like we’re going into a new industrial revolution.”