BY JOSEPH HO
Red Deer College is using virtual reality simulators to train Aboriginal welders, right where they are.
The program is called Virtual Reality and Co-operative Trades — The Next Generation — and was formed through a partnership between the school, the Montana First Nation and WorleyParsonsCord. The project, which aims to improve access to technical training for Indigenous learners, is partially funded by the federal government.
Brenda Munro, RDC’s dean of continuing education, said many students face challenges when they have to leave home to receive training. Some might not have finished high school and some don’t have the money to move. This program allows them to gain the needed skills in an environment where they’re comfortable.
Community matters when it comes to learning outcomes, said RDC President Joel Ward.
“Our experience has been the closer you are to the home community, the more likely learners are going to succeed. Whether it’s in northern Aboriginal communities or communities in Central Alberta. Close to home, cultural supports, innovative delivery and assessment strategies, those are the key to success,” he said.
He added this teaching model allows Indigenous students to learn in an environment that respects their culture and heritage. The curriculum incorporates cultural teachings from the students’ elders as well.
The first six weeks of the program take place at the Montana First Nation. There, students learn about safety, welding theory, and they can upgrade math and science credits and practice on the simulators.
Then they spend the next eight weeks at RDC.
After that, students enter a 20-week work placement.
Students return to RDC once more to finish their technical training and head off for a second work placement.
“By that time, they’ll have written all of their AIT exams, have all of their technical training. Then it’s a matter of completing the required number of hours to become a full journeyperson,” Munro said.
This training is being offered in two cohorts of 25 students each. The first started last October.
Eric Crier is one of them and can attest to the realism of the simulators.
“It’s very close. It’s wicked technology,” Crier said. “I never welded when I first got on the simulator. It’s kind of like a game but at the same time, (there’s) so much technology and research put into the machines that it’s just incredible.”
The only difference?
“Just the heat. It gets pretty hot in the shop.”
Bradley Rabbit is a Montana First Nation councillor and said he’s noticed improved morale and self-esteem within his community since this learning opportunity opened up.
Last Thursday, the College gathered its partners to celebrate the launch of the program.
One of the speakers was Bruce Hinkley, MLA for Wetaskiwin-Camrose, who said this initiative was done in the, “Spirit of reconciliation.”
Speaking to reporters afterward, Ward expanded on that, saying post-secondary institutions have a role to play in that.
For starters, at events like this one, there’s acknowledgement that the campus sits on Treaty 6 and 7 land. As well, RDC includes diverse perspectives into the curriculum, including Aboriginal ones, he said. The goal is to increase understanding of different cultures.
“Red Deer is not the same as it was when I came here 10 years ago. It’s not. Watch when students cross the stage at convocation. It’s changed dramatically. We are multicultural and we have to provide opportunities to ensure every student gets an opportunity for cultural awareness, and opportunities to experience different cultures,” Ward said.