Photo by JEFF STOKOE/Advocate staff Red Deer College first year welding apprentice student Eric Crier of the Samson Cree Nation tries out a virtual welding machine at Red Deer College Thursday afternoon. Aboriginal students from Maskwacis are starting their welding education at Red Deer College without having to leave home. See related story on page 3.

Red Deer College’s virtual reality welding pilot project now underway

Could be a model for other colleges to use in partnership with industry and indigenous communities

Aboriginal students from Maskwacis are starting their welding education at Red Deer College without having to leave home.

An innovative virtual reality pilot project is underway in Central Alberta that could become a model for other colleges to use in partnership with industry and indigenous communities.

Twenty-one Maskwacis students are completing the first six weeks of the RDC welding program by learning the basics on a virtual reality simulated welding program set up at the Montana First Nation.

The flexible format is the key to its success, said RDC president Joel Ward. The program “infuses cultural teachings and learnings from the students’ elders with technical and hands-on training.”

Ward noted the students start learning skills without losing community connections. They learn at their own pace, within a predesignated time schedule.

Dylan Potts, 21, discovered he likes welding by practising on a system comparable to a computer game. A screen inside his welding helmet transformed a plastic practise seam into something resembling metal. When he maneuvered a computerized welding torch over this seam, the computer program advised him on how it should be held and applied.

The Maskwacis students were later driven to RDC where they continued their classroom and lab work with the use of real welding torches. Dillon Crane, 25, said he found the actual equipment easy to use after learning the basics on the simulator.

Crane and Potts now look forward to transitioning to a 20-week work placement at an employer in Sherwood Park. The students from Maskwacis will later return to RDC for a second portion of training, followed by another 20-week work placement before challenging the exam and practical assessments, having earned hours towards journeyman certification.

On Thursday, RDC’s partners — the Montana First Nation, which helps with education and transportation costs, and the Blackfalds fabrication firm WorleyParsonsCord, which bought the welding simulators — were thanked by college officials for believing in the potential of the program.

The federal government also provided 75 per cent of the $2-million funding for the pilot project, which will be run again with another second group of students.

If successful, it could be used to innovate trades and technology programs throughout the country, said Brenda Munro, RDC’s dean of continuing education.

Bradley Rabbit, a Montana band counsellor, said indigenous students face many obstacles to getting an education, including cultural barriers. It’s far less intimidating to start the program on familiar ground — once they gain confidence, they can continue their education at RDC, and eventually enter the labour force, said Rabbit. He hopes the whole Maskwacis economy will ultimately benefit.

RDC has about 250 indigenous student among 8,000 full and part-time students. Ward wants to increase this number. He also hopes to expand the welding program to meet a growing demand.

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