Volkswagen Chattanooga Developing Workforce Ready Students

The word sounds a little futuristic: mechatronics.

If so, that’s appropriate, because that word and what lies behind it offer a big step toward the future for high school and community college students in and around Chattanooga, thanks to Volkswagen.

Through a partnership with Chattanooga State Community College and the Hamilton County Department of Education, the German carmaker with roots in the eastern Tennessee area is providing a series of training steps that will lead students to a career.

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But what is mechatronics? 

“Mechatronics relates to technology that combines electronics and mechanical engineering, ” says Scott Wilson, head of communications at Volkswagen Chattanooga, of the term that originated in the 1960s with an engineer at Japan’s Yaskawa Electric Corp. 

Chattanooga State takes the definition a step further — “Mechatronics integrates the fields of mechanical, electrical, robotics, controls and computer engineering to optimize the functionality of modern engineering systems.”

For students in the vicinity of the VW plant, mechatronics can mean a whole lot more. Recently, VW launched the Volkswagen Mechatronics Scholarship fund, which supports students enrolled in the Volkswagen Mechatronics Akademie program, a workforce development initiative arising from a partnership among the automaker, Chattanooga State and the Hamilton County schools.

The scholarship program covers tuition for students in high school who continue on to Chattanooga State, which has been the lead institution for workforce training at the Chattanooga VW plant. Through the Mechatronics Akademie, high school juniors and seniors can earn more than 40 hours of credit toward an associate’s degree in the field of mechatronics from Chattanooga State.

The instructors for the mechatronics coursework, who come from both the county system and the community college, combine high school requirements with those needed for the Chattanooga State credit, on a flexible schedule. When they graduate from high school, students in the specialized program need only one additional year of college courses to earn an associate of applied science degree in engineering systems technology at Chattanooga State.

“The Mechatronics Akademie is the perfect entrée to our post-high school programs in mechatronics here at the factory and we felt that it was crucial for Volkswagen to support the re-emergence of hands-on skills as a vital part of the educational options for students in the Tennessee Valley, ” Wilson said in a press release about the scholarship fund. 

Thus far, 24 high school students from Central, East Hamilton, Ooltewah, and Tyner Academy have enrolled. The scholarship fund is being managed by the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga Inc. The high school component is new — first offered in the fall of 2016 — but it’s already popular with the Hamilton County schools administration.

“This is a great opportunity for our students, ” Interim HCDE Superintendent Kirk Kelly, said in the same release. “The Mechatronics Akademie has become a crucial part of our Career and Technical Education, and we are so glad Volkswagen is supporting our Hamilton County students with the establishment of this fund. This successful partnership with VW and Chattanooga State means our students enter the workforce with an excellent education and real-world skills.”

The high school component is directly related to an older program for students after high school, a three-year mechatronics apprenticeship program administered through the ongoing collaboration between VW and Chattanooga State. “That program is based on the German model of apprenticeship learning, ” Wilson says. “The Automation Mechatronics Program is a dual-education system apprenticeship program designed from the German model and is offered exclusively through Volkswagen Academy. The program seeks to assist with developing the skilled workforce within the community.”

That apprenticeship program, he says, is “a blend of classroom and hands-on training. Students study areas such as machining, electricity, pneumatics, programmable logic controllers, robotics, fault analysis and automation.” 

The success of that apprenticeship program, which can lead to work with Volkswagen or elsewhere, was highlighted in a short article on the Chattanooga State website two years ago under the headline, “Mechatronics Grad Offered Pick Of Jobs.” The story was about Nicholas Vidrine, who spoke as valedictorian of his class in 2015. 

“Following a short stint at Volkswagen, he was offered positions at several manufacturing facilities around the southeast, and settled on Michelin in South Carolina who recently hired him as a maintenance technician, ” according to the story. “Before entering the Mechatronics program, Nicholas was a mechanic and computer programmer who said, ‘Mechatronics seemed like the next logical step. It is a great foundation to build off of if you are interested in engineering technology and I believe it is a must before pursuing a career in almost any type of engineering.’”

Officials at Chattanooga State had high praise for the new crop of students coming from Hamilton County schools. 

“The students participating in the Mechatronics Akademie have already exceeded our expectations, ” says Juliette Biondi, director of High School Programs at Chattanooga State. “With a 98 percent attendance rate and a dramatic increase in GPA, these students are working hard and their efforts have paid off.  

“Having strong industry partners such as Volkswagen allows HCDE and Chattanooga State to continue to develop innovative educational opportunities for the students in our community. We are confident that this model of education can be expanded successfully across our service region, ” she says.

TEXT By Nick Patterson

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