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Virtual Training in Alberta

In early March Irfan Zardadkhan and Gregor Scott from the Tigercat electronic systems group, and district manager James Farquhar travelled to the remote community of La Crete, Alberta. Their mission was a Tigercat simulator start-up.

— Paul Iarocci

Millions of cubic metres and a significant portion of Alberta’s annual allowable cut is harvested by contractors based in the northern Alberta community of La Crete. In addition, many highly skilled machine operators from La Crete have fanned out across the province and beyond to work in the logging industry. It made sense to me that such a place would have need for a highly realistic virtual operator training system for forestry equipment. However, it was a surprise to learn that the simulator system was not delivered to an area contractor or a community college but to the Fort Vermilion School Division (FVSD).

I also didn’t realize that I would travel to the 58th parallel, 700 km north of Edmonton to be introduced to the most progressive school system I’ve ever encountered anywhere. It is the vision of superintendent of Fort Vermilion School Division, Mike McMann who is working alongside La Crete’s community and business leaders to rethink and rebuild education with the aim to serve a much greater proportion of students in the catchment and deliver a product that is better aligned with the realities of the job market.

In addition to the communities of La Crete, Fort Vermilion and High Level, FVSD serves very remote rural regions. For Mike and associate superintendent Karen Smith, the drop-out rate for students aged sixteen and above in these communities has been unacceptably high. The idea is to offer the students high quality programs that are more inclusive and keep kids in school longer. In addition to traditional academics, FVSD seeks to capture and retain students that might benefit from alternate streams, and who in the past may have been lost to the school system altogether.

The new career path oriented program is based on Alberta’s collegiate school model, which offers specialized programming in a particular subject and provides a clear pathway into post-secondary education or a chosen career. Key characteristics are formal agreements with post-secondary institutions and the opportunity for real-world work experience.

The last piece is where local business is stepping up. Herman Wiebe, owner of Homeland Industries Ltd. is a successful local logging contractor. He explains that high schools in remote areas are competing against local businesses. “Unskilled kids are leaving school and taking minimum wage jobs. So let’s partner with local business and logging contractors to keep them in school and provide a better, more highly skilled, more mature, resilient employee when they do eventually get into the workforce.”
The new learning streams that Mike is working on are designed to give kids an edge and FVSD has run with this as an acronym: Explore, Develop, Grow and Experience. Starting in grade six, the children are exposed to various resources to introduce abroad range of potential occupations. In grades seven to nine the students begin to develop practical workplace skills. Through grades ten to twelve, the students grow their knowledge in a chosen field. FVSD is aiming to add grades thirteen and fourteen, allowing students time and space to experience a chosen career path, continuing to earn college level and apprentice credits while still in high school. One student might graduate with a diploma and a first-year journeyman apprenticeship under her belt. Another student might be earning college level course credits grade eleven without the financial outlay associated with college tuition.

Core subjects required for graduation like math, English and science are taught at the local high school. Career-specific training occurs at three other facilities in the district. The first Tigercat simulator was delivered to De Oabeit School in LaCrete. The new 885 square metre (9,500 square foot) facility includes classrooms, a simulator lab and a full mechanics bay. Similar facilities have been established in Fort Vermilion and High Level. Additional Tigercat simulators are budgeted for these campuses as well.

Bryan Rempel, IT specialist at the De Oabeit campus in La Crete, has taken ownership in implementing the technical aspects of the program. Bryan showed us around the La Crete campus, and we were all stunned upon entering the simulator lab. Laptop stations with advanced 3Dscreen technology allow students to rotate, manipulate and dissect objects that appear to be floating in space. In addition to the newly delivered Tigercat simulator were five networked construction equipment simulators, allowing students to work together. For instance, one student could be operating a rock truck while another loads it with an excavator. We tried out a fully immersive enclosed flight simulator for a single engine plane. The realism was enough to induce mild dizziness.
A Class 1 driving school currently aimed at adults provides tuition revenue to subsidize the collegiate student level programs. Students are learning how to operate drones and in the process are discovering LIDAR technology and other advanced drone applications. In a well-equipped workshop, we saw heavy equipment axles and transmissions in various stages of assembly. Students were working together on the construction of a tiny house, while pursuing individual career paths in design, construction, carpentry, plumbing and electrical trades.

Plans are in the works to develop land upon which to place the tiny houses. It is hoped that this will be another real-world learning experience, exposing students in the equipment operator career path to an actual site development project. A business model will be developed to establish rental revenue – again operated by students. Bryan explains that instead of hypothetical projects, students will develop real businesses. The additional revenue streams will in turn lead to more program development.

“The community in La Crete is extremely impressive,” notes Gregor. “The partnership between the school and the business community is different from anything I know. I was amazed to see how closely local business leaders collaborate with the schools to help future generations learn practical skills that will in turn help the economy of La Crete grow. I saw a clear focus on providing all students with as many hands-on experiences in their coursework as possible.”

For logging business owners like Philip Unrau, CEO of FTEN Group of Companies, the heavy equipment training and machine operator career paths are particularly appealing. Operating harvesting, heavy construction, piling and trucking companies, Philip is grateful for Mike’s enthusiasm and the speed in which he is pushing innovative ideas in education through to implementation. He estimates that somewhere around half of forestry machine operators in Alberta come from La Crete. “This program will have a provincial wide impact,” says Philip.

Expert operators Andy Driedger, owner of Garden River Logging Ltd .and Willy Neufeld, owner of Northern Timber Management took time to visit the lab during the start-up and
ran the simulator, providing Irfan and Gregor with valuable feedback on the new processor and feller buncher programs. “All the machine operators who tried the simulator were eager to provide feedback to help make it better. I have pages of notes,” says Gregor. The simulator development team is constantly improving the programs and attempting to design the most relevant and transferable course content. Updates are delivered to the simulator units direct from the Tigercat factory through WiFi connectivity.
Jon Goertzen is a forestry consultant who has been working with FVSD and the local logging contractors on provincial government grant applications to fund forestry program expansion. He put in time researching different forestry equipment simulator systems and getting input from local contractors to ensure the program will best serve students while meshing with actual requirements in the real-world job market.

“The goal is to develop competency in forest equipment operations,” says Jon. “Simulators are an essential tool to help develop repetitive motions and to ingrain correct working procedures. Simulators will be combined with shop space for hands-on learning, and multi-use classrooms, providing students with machine operating, maintenance and safety training.”

The forestry machine operator program will be built around Tigercat simulators, starting off with programs for a track feller buncher and roadside processor. The actual machine controls sets can be changed out to switch from one program to another in minutes. All the contractors that visited the lab agreed that the ability to put actual controls in the simulator is one aspect that differentiates the Tigercat product from other simulators. Because La Crete area contractors have standardized processor controls, a student trained on a Tigercat simulator will be acquiring a very portable and useful skillset. All the contractors we spoke with agreed on the obvious advantages of simulator-based training for their businesses: less wear and tear on the machines, less need to tie up a machine for many hours of unproductive training time, reduced fuel consumption and improved
safety on the job.

Jon notes that there are many First Nations communities in the FVSD catchment. “Many of us here in La Crete grew up on a farm. So I’ve operated a farm truck, driven a grain truck, and I have some equipment experience. For someone who doesn’t have any experience, they’re already at a huge disadvantage. Some of the First Nations kids have not grown up with equipment, and you kind of set them up to fail because they don’t have the same type of background experience. It’s a big reason why we want a mobile unit to actually go to the rural schools.” The simulators help to level out the playing field, advancing the goal of graduating every student in the district with additional credentials to help them succeed in life. “I really care about the local area. I care about kids having jobs in the future,” says Jon. “I have kids, and I have 35 nieces and nephews. We need to have proper training.”

Gregor emphasizes that he is excited to work with the school district and the contractors to help them get the most out of the simulator and to further develop the product. “Kids who complete the curriculum should take much less time to become proficient operators, and it will help kids explore local job opportunities. Plus, our work in La Crete will make the simulator a better product for everyone.”