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Hawkeye STEM conference for 8th graders

posted on Friday, November 7, 2014 in  College News

By: Mike Anderson, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

WATERLOO—The welding torch hissed into the classroom from another dimension.

“It’s harder than it looks,” eighth-grader Jacob Terrill would tell one of his teachers later. “Everything goes dark, and all you see is sparks flying.”

The hissing stopped. Another student from Holmes Junior High in Cedar Falls removed the virtual reality welding mask and emerged out of a digitally rendered auto shop into the fluorescent-lit lab, where dozens of her classmates were waiting for their turn.

Jeff Jantzen, the lead instructor of the welding program at Hawkeye Community College, scooped up the plastic torch and craned his neck to examine the simulated weld as it popped up on an adjacent computer monitor.

“80,” he shouted. “New high score!”

The virtual welder has always been one of the most popular programs at the STEM Career fair, which started Thursday and is continuing into today. In its fifth year, the fair is expected to host more than 2,000 area eighth-graders.

“The kids love it,” Jantzen said of the virtual welding program. “It fills up every year.”

Each student visited three immersive occupational sessions throughout the day as they prepare to enter high school. Down the hall from room 244, a class full of kids was engrossed behind the screens of laptops as they learned about a career in gaming.

In other parts of Grundy Hall, students took part in lessons and interactive demonstrations about genetics, digital recording, police science and alternative energy sources.

 “They like it,” said teacher Luke Becker. “They get to see things they don’t usually get to see or do.”

Eighth-grader Jaden Thompson’s father is a welder, so he knew a thing or two about the trade before taking the virtual torch in hand.

“It’s kind of interesting to me,” Thompson said, as he educated his fellow classmates on optimal heat application and ideal welding materials.

Jantzen has been demonstrating the virtual welder for students like Thompson every year since the STEM fair began. Some of the students who try their hand at virtual welding end up enrolling in his courses at Hawkeye years later to learn how to do the real thing. Some have expressed interest in getting a job as a welder.

 “It’s really great because they get to try it without having to go through all the safety training,” Jantzen said, adding that welding in the real world is much more difficult and hazardous. The relatively new virtual reality technology gives kids a safe place to try it out, often for the first time.

“You guys did a great job,” Jantzen shouted after the students as they filed out of the room. “Maybe we’ll see you in a few years.”

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