Western Colorado Community College lecturer Steve Metheny talks to students in the Mobile Learning Lab Monday at Ridgway Secondary School. (Photo by Tanya Ishikawa/The Watch)

A semi-truck, parked at the Ridgway Secondary School on Monday, was not delivering food to the cafeteria or other products to students and teachers. Instead, the 53-foot-long, 8-foot-wide trailer was ingesting class after class of middle and high schoolers to show off a line of automated factory equipment and a computer lab.

The Mobile Learning Lab is a an initiative of Western Colorado Community College (WCCC) that provides opportunities for students, employees and job seekers in rural areas to learn about and gain hands-on experience in the skills necessary for jobs maintaining and repairing automated systems, equipment and components. Besides short show-and-tell visits like this week’s, the lab can become a classroom at any location, if enough students enroll in a related college course.

“Catching kids at lunch, I heard that it was really opening their eyes to the possibility that these jobs exist. They have heard of robotics, but to see what it looks like, boots on the ground, was a horizon opening for them,” said Ridgway Secondary School counselor Terra Malmstrom, who helped arrange the lab’s visit. “Our hope is that we could have it back on some repeat basis. We are trying to tie it into the super-cool STEM classes we have going on already.”

In addition to typical science and math classes, the high school has a tech elective that teaches programming and robotics, as well as an elective where students learn about solar power. Both the middle and high school are focused on addressing the increasing need for career training, she added.

While the regular lab visits may not be a possibility in Ridgway due to the small number of students, classes in mechatronics (mechanical electronics) and related fields are offered at WCCC in Grand Junction and the Colorado Mesa University Montrose Campus, as well as online. Class topics include electrical (AC, DC), hydraulics, pneumatics, motors, compressors, robotics and PLC (programmable logic controllers). Students can earn an associate degree of applied science or a certificate that prepares them for careers in factories and other businesses that use automated systems.

“We are teaching them how to safely operate and maintain the machinery. It’s not just putting a widget on an assembly line, a mundane job. It’s problem solving and maintaining computers and machinery, which is more interesting,” said Steve Metheny, a computer information systems lecturer at WCCC, who guided classes through the mobile lab Monday.

Grand Junction and Montrose have many companies that require workers skilled in maintaining automated systems, Metheny added. Tei Rock Drills, Galiso, Ross Reels and Scott Fly Rods are a few of the Montrose employers.

In Ouray County, businesses that operate automated equipment, such as car washes and restaurant kitchen appliances, can use people trained in mechatronics. Telluride Ski Resort has automated equipment that can only be maintained by people with the same skills. Having earned the degree or certificate, graduates can also find jobs at amusement parks like Elitch Gardens and car manufacturers like Toyota, he explained.

“The idea of this is creating high-paying jobs. With this type of education, students can hit the floor employable,” he said.

The creation of the lab, which cost approximately $500,000, was funded by donations from the Sturm Family and ANB Bank. The lab will be making a stop in Naturita soon.