SCCC corrosion program wins National Science Foundation grant

The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant of $295,161 to Seward County Community College for support of a project to expand its corrosion technology program. The award began June 15, 2019, and is slated to run through May 31, 2022.

“We applied for this grant with the vision of making our corrosion program, which is one of only three in the nation, and the only one with an outdoor practice facility, a resource for students across the United States,” said grant writer Charity Horinek.

“It’s hard to understate how phenomenal this grant award is,” said SCCC President Dr. Ken Trzaska. “The National Science Foundation is extremely rigorous in its process. The colleges that receive funding are in a class by themselves. I’m incredibly proud of our team for all the work that led to this achievement.”

With lead instructors Chris Hickman and Autry Coleman, Horinek mapped out a strategy to launch online access to SCCC’s corrosion studies.  SCCC Director of Business and Industry Norma Jean Dodge, SCCC Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Todd Carter, and Dean of Industrial Technology Travis Combs also provided valuable insights and worked closely with the team.

“Since launching Blendflex at SCCC, we’ve been learning about best practices for online learning, and how to meet our students’ needs,” Carter said. “Online is not just a trend, it provides the flexibility that real life demands. Many times, we see that students are enrolled in courses that have the potential to change their lives, but then things get in the way — illness, childcare, transportation — and having that online access can shift the balance.”

For corrosion technology in particular, those factors intersect with an industry long known for dramatic ups and downs.

“Corrosion is something we need to maintain aging infrastructure across the nation. Just think about the bridges we trust for transportation, and the fact that more than half of them need serious maintenance. Think of Flint, Mich., and the way corrosion affected drinking water and public health,” said Hickman, who heads up the energy division at SCCC.

“So whether or not we are in a boom cycle for oil and gas, there is a need for corrosion techs.” Corrosion instructor Autry Coleman said another factor is the often erratic nature of work  across industry.

“They need corrosion techs when they are building new facilities. Those jobs tend to be project-based so you’re jumping from one construction site to the next thing, and there can be big gaps in between,” he said. “Then for the existing pipelines and wells, it seems like companies are consolidating and telling the technicians, ‘Now you’re going to check corrosion, too.’ Whether they know how or not.”

Online studies fit in well with the full-time worker who wants to upgrade his or her skills. In fact, Coleman said, that’s how he got started in the field.

“I took classes for four years during the day, and worked full-time security at night,” he said. “It was rough, but that was the only option. These students coming in, they will benefit from having online classes that fit into their work schedule.”

The NSF grant structure advocates and encourages open communication within the scientific community. That means the grant proposal included letters of support from SCCC’s industry partners and from its fellow corrosion-program colleges in Dawson, Mt., and Kilgore, Texas.

“It’s definitely a collaborative effort,” said Hickman. “There’s a demand for these skills and a dearth of instructors. We fully expect our students to be gainfully employed once they finish.”

“For some of the classes, we are actually having to write the curriculum,” said Coleman. “The books that you can consult are written at an engineering level, and that’s great, but many of our students are coming straight to us from high school or have been working in the industry with no degree. The course has to be a combination of hands-on and very practical, and yet enough chemistry and math so that there is a real understanding of what is happening to the materials. It can’t just be knowing how to use a tool, without understanding the fundamentals.”

How will the hands-on portion of the course be presented, if students enroll online from far-away locations?

“Our vision is to provide a week or two of intensive, hands-on training here on campus,” said Hickman. “Our instructional designer, Jim Hyder, is working with us to get the most benefit from the online components, and we will take a look at the details of how to prepare the students for the hands-on portion.” With its state-of-the-art, custom-designed outdoor lab, the SCCC corrosion program offers students highly valuable practice, Hickman said.

“We named our corrosion classroom after Bob Speck, who essentially invented many parts of the cathodic protection systems,” he said. “Then, Bob designed our outdoor lab, drawing on decades of experience.”

Closing the gap between virtual and real-life instruction is something SCCC has conquered with other career-focused programs, such as Medical Laboratory Technician and Respiratory Therapy Technician studies, which enroll students around the nation in partnership with local clinical sites. The model has worked well, said Dean of Allied Health, Dr. Suzanne Campbell, largely in part because education is the gateway to professional credentialing.

“The students gain mastery in our program and at the clinical sites, but then it is the professional certification test that results in employment,” she said.

For corrosion studies, more options provide gainful employment. Many companies will hire corrosion technicians after only a year of successful study, a trend that has siphoned more than one student from Coleman’s classroom.

“Internships sometimes turn into job offers,” he said. “And for my students, when that happens, I’m happy for them. Lots of these companies also pay for continuing education, which could be an option through our online courses.”

Industry certifier NACE — the National Association of Corrosion Engineers — already partners with SCCC through its office of Business and Industry. Students who have completed the SCCC course are well-prepared to sit for the CP-1 exam, and frequently phone Coleman to share their success.

“The NSF grant is going to help us connect with more students in more diverse areas and circumstances,” said Combs. “This is what career tech-ed — CTE — is all about, and we’re excited to be on the cutting edge.”

Disclaimer: the opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed by SCCC are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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