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Sierra College addresses skills gap by fusing math with welding

By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Placer Herald and Press Tribune editor
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Sierra College’s welding students are more prepared than ever for careers after college, thanks to a new program that combines the world of welding with math fundamentals.

“Employers report that skilled employees can’t apply fractions, decimals and basic math to their work,” reported Carol Pepper-Kittredge, director of the Sierra College Center for Applied Competitive Technologies. “Infusing math into welding shows great potential to address the skills gap before students go into the workforce.”
 
In partnership with West Virginia University, the IGNITE project was developed and funded by the National Science Foundation. IGNITE stands for Infusing Gen-ed Into Technical Education.
 
“From one side of the nation to the other, we collaborated on ideas and methods to incorporate math into a hands-on program like welding,” said Welding Department Chair Bill Wenzel, who developed the program with Math Department Chair Katie Lucero.
 
"So instead of a student sitting in a math class going through the applications of algebra, calculus or trigonometry, they’re now sitting in class where they’re using a hands-on project and realizing, ‘Why, I need to know how to do adding, subtracting and fractions to use a tape measure, and how I can use algebra to solve an equation that I need to use now to do this project.’”
 
This is the second year for the program, in which students in two welding classes spend part of their time in the classroom, working on fundamental math skills such as multiplying and dividing fractions, and then take those skills into the workshop, where they apply them to welding projects.
 
Welding Technology 10 students each make a hibachi grill, welding the components they’ve measured using math basics. They use fractions to determine how many lengths of a measurement could be cut from one rod, and calculate how much material is needed for the grill. They also go through exercises such as comparing the construction costs of two grill designs.
 
IGNITE results are carefully studied, and the program adapted to address students’ needs. According to a Sierra College media release, a student survey found that 52 percent of the students in the infused math-welding class had not enrolled in a math class at Sierra, but 82 percent said they would be more comfortable taking a math class in the future. Also, 48 percent said they’d be more likely to take a math assessment for placement in a math class.
 
Wenzel, who has taught at Sierra since 2001, said he started welding at age 12 and having a focus on mathematics would have been beneficial.
 
“It was a struggle to incorporate that math application that I learned sitting behind a desk to, how do I now use it in day-to-day needs?” he said. “I think it would have benefited me tremendously.”
 
Wenzel said that while many students are at first skeptical of their welding class being a math class, too, he often hears from them that the math skills have proven invaluable. And having those skills makes students more employable in the thriving welding industry – Wenzel said one student was recently hired at a job that pays $37.50 per hour.
 
He added that the IGNITE project is not possible without the help of the Math Department and Lucero in particular, who helps develop new exercises when students aren’t responding. For example, when students were struggling with adding and subtracting fractions, he and Lucero developed an activity in which students went around the building as teams, trying to find the measurements of the largest and smallest doors there.
 
“The thing that I keep hearing over and over again is this is one of the few success stories of trying to incorporate the math folks on campus with the hands-on folks on campus, and have them work together well,” Wenzel said.
 
Welding student Leah Sainsbury said having the math component of class is vital to making sure the welding projects turn out well.
“You have to make sure that all your measurements are pretty precise, otherwise your barbecue is going to come out offset,” she said.
“It won’t be level or square – the whole thing could be off-kilter,” agreed fellow student Alex Anderson. “You’ll lose a hot dog off the side or whatever.”
 
In addition to refreshing or developing new math skills, there’s also one more payoff to the IGNITE program: At the end of the class, Wenzel brings in briquettes and students get to have a barbecue using the grills they made.
 
“Your grade is not dependent on how well you cook,” Wenzel laughed. “It’s dependent on how well your barbecue turns out.”
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Learn more about the Sierra College Center for Applied Competitive Technologies at www.sierracollegetraining.com or www.sierraschoolworks.com.