Why it’s critical to pair content with lab for course success

How hands-on learning is key to bridging the skills gap.

lab-skills-classIt’s no news to say that there is a skills gap in the U.S. today, but if it’s not addressed soon, our labor market, particularly in technical fields, is headed for major problems.

Across the board in industries from manufacturing to construction and engineering, demand for highly trained technical workers remains high and employers are scrambling to secure the available talent that does exist. By 2020, the problem will be at crisis level in many fields. Demand for employees in the professional, scientific and technical service fields is expected to rise to 29 percent. Some specialist industries project major employee shortfalls; welding for example, expects a skills gap of as many as 290,000 workers from engineers to inspectors to teachers.

While some employers are turning to on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs, those can only take employees and the industry so far. In reality, we as higher education administrators and faculty must take up the challenge of evolving the standards and methodologies of technical education in order to both prepare the best technical workers of the future and make a technical education a fully rounded, engaging experience for graduates.

As Provost of Dunwoody College of Technology (and a former HVAC instructor), I’ve seen many students struggle to understand why they have to learn theory alongside technical skills. More rare, but still of concern, are the students who are more comfortable in the classroom and struggle to embrace hands-on practice in labs, studios and shops, which requires patience, hard work and diligent acquisition of specific skills.

But both theory and application are necessary for true learning to really take root. It’s a self-reinforcing model of learning, which, put quite simply, looks like this:

Theory Reinforces Practice (and vice versa)

The crucial importance of context cannot be over-estimated. In more standard educational models, students first build a foundation of theory and then later in their degree program apply that theory through specific coursework and internships. We’ve found that by flipping this model and immersing our students from day one in real-world environments and workplace situations they more quickly develop a body of experience and contextual understanding of specialist technical environments that make the learning of theory far more relevant and successful.

 (Next page: Real world, hands-on, employer-needed training)

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