The Southern Illinois University Carbondale Aviation Technology program, Man-Tra-Con and a developer of virtual reality education systems are partnering to help train future aircraft mechanics and help attract individuals into the field.
Part of a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Delta Regional Authority is being used to develop virtual reality simulations based on the aviation maintenance training curriculum at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
“What we are doing is developing a whole library of virtual reality simulations that students in our program can use to help with training of the hands-on skills that are required for an aviation maintenance technician,” explained Karen Johnson, associate professor in the SIU Department of Aviation Technologies.
Johnson said the simulations, under development by virtual reality start-up company TRANSFR, also are a recruiting tool.
“Any of the area high schools that have a career and technical education program can use these simulations in their programs as well. It may be just like as an introductory tool to the profession, but it also is a good recruitment tool for SIU to show these students some of the career paths and to introduce them to how to maintain aircraft. Kids actually get to see it rather than just hear someone talking about it,” she said.
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Her role in the development is similar to that of a subject matter expert, focusing on the content delivered through an Oculus virtual reality headset and hand controllers.
“While these are in no way intended to replace the real world, hands-on experience, they are a stepping stone or bridge between what you would learn in the classroom and coming into the hangar,” Johnson said.
Johnson called the virtual reality training a “risk-free” zone where skills can be practiced without danger of personal injury or even embarrassment.
“For a student who has never been exposed to these type of skills and content, it’s can be intimidating to try this in front of peers,” she explained. “With VR, it’s one-on-one, by themselves and if they mess up, they’re not really messing up.”
She said the system, which is being used on a trial basis at several area high schools, also gives students access which they would not otherwise have.
“It is great practice for students who don’t have aircraft, so they are getting experiences they otherwise would not have,” she said.
Kathy Lively, CEO of the area workforce development organization Man-Tra-Con, said the system gives students exposure to new technology as well as possible career paths.
“One of the things we are hoping for is that area high school students will see parts of SIU and careers that they didn’t even know existed. If we can augment their learning with this, we can get them excited about the program,” she said.
Both Lively and Johnson said in addition to better training current aviation students and aiding in recruiting new students to the program, the simulations are designed to help build the region’s workforce and economy.
“There is an increased industry demand, even right here at the Southern Illinois Airport,” she said.
“Our goal is that these might help a person be ready to go to work with some of the employers that are coming on site. We hope some of these students will stay hear upon graduation and that we can help combat ‘brain drain’ for our region. This will give them opportunities to stay here,” Lively said.