Oconto Middle School students use virtual welders, thanks to Packers

OCONTO – Oconto Middle School students will have a chance to explore new career opportunities as they try their hand at welding.

The Oconto Unified School District purchased a MobileArc Augmented Reality Welding System and Prusa i3 3D printers as part of a $20,000 technology makeover made possible through Leap for Learning, a new technology makeover program offered by the Green Bay Packers and UScellular and partially funded by a grant from the NFL Foundation.

Emily Miller, superintendent of the school district, said virtual welders will give students the opportunity to try welding without its inherent dangers, such as burns, eye injuries and electric shock.

“The goal is to provide different STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) opportunities and allow the students to follow up with welding and metal fabrication at the high school level,” she said.

The high school offers college credit courses in welding through Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

By using the welding simulators, students can practice multiple welding processes in a realistic simulator that generates three-dimensional images of metal workpieces. Realistic arc sounds accompany the visuals, contributing to an immersive experience. Students are monitored, scored and provided feedback regarding their welding technique. Initially, students in grades five through eight will use the welding system, although the system can easily be moved to the high school, also.

“Students will learn the basics of welding, choosing different types of welds, and practicing different welding techniques in a safe environment,” Miller said.

The virtual welding program is an example of how collaboration between the school district and local businesses helps strengthen the community. Chad Hendzel, an NWTC welding instructor and operations manager at Yakfab Metals Inc. in Oconto, said the metal fabrication industry needs more welders, and programs like this one introduce youth to this lucrative and versatile career path.

“It’s nice to get the exposure at the middle school level so they can get into some welding classes in high school if that’s the path they’re interested in,” Hendzel said. “If a person has mechanical abilities and likes working with their hands, welding can be a fun job to have.”

Yakfab is a CNC machining, custom welding and fabrication machine shop serving a wide variety of industries, including marine, fire protection, paper, food processing and chemical processing.

“The type of (welding) work can be all over the board. You’re not just sitting in a booth and welding for 10 hours and go home,” he said. Welding careers pay well and provide numerous opportunities for advancement.

“Lots of careers can spawn out of a welding certificate,” Hendzel said.

An Oconto Middle School student uses a virtual welder to learn about the skill without dangers from electric shock, burns, eye injuries and infrared radiation exposure.

Jim Eckes, fabrication manager at Nercon, said welders have a lot of different career opportunities in sectors like manufacturing, metal working and metal art. Welding is an integral skill for employees of Nercon, which designs and manufactures conveyor systems and equipment for all types of consumer-packaged goods.

Eckes said one of welding’s rewards is the ability to create something with your hands and your skills.

“Even at its most basic form, you’re creating something,” Eckes said. “You get to see the end product and how it fits into the other assembly.”

Introducing welding at the middle school will open doors to careers that students might not have considered and save them the time and money of pursuing a college degree or career that isn’t a good fit, Eckes said. Plus, students have a safe environment to learn welding, without the heat and danger, even before entering high school.

“The earlier you can pique their interest, the better off you are,” Eckes said. “They can hit the ground running and be more successful going into it.”

Experiencing welding at the middle school level also helps remove the stigma that manufacturing is a dirty, dingy jog, while it’s actually a challenging, complex and rewarding career, Eckes said.

The welding system was installed in a STEAM lab at the middle school during the 2022-23 school year. The virtual welders provide students with real-world, interactive experiences in welding, plus fun opportunities to practice what they learn.

Samantha Boucher is the tourism director for the Oconto County Economic Development Corporation.

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