Teacher to Teacher with Brian Nelsen: How Dunwoody College Works Through the Pandemic

The is a guest blog written by Brian Nelsen, Associate Professor of Machine Tool Technology at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He describes his program, working with Mastercam, and how Dunwoody has remained a hands-on teaching institution through the pandemic.

Dunwoody has always been known as hands-on when it comes to training for the burgeoning world of automated manufacturing. The unique focus of our curriculum is on the actual making of the parts, dies, and molds the students will encounter after graduation. Without Mastercam, we would have to do all the programming for those parts by hand, which would be super limiting. I have students who have done some incredibly complex 3-dimensional parts relying solely on Mastercam. It lets them be creative within the whole spectrum of manufacturing.

We get many of our students right out of high school, but we also get machinists who are here for retraining in CAD/CAM. We get people from other fields who want to learn a new trade in a relatively short period of time, leading to a job in today’s very hot, automated manufacturing industry.

Students in the first year of our Machine Tool Technology program learn the manual processes. We have manual mills, lathes, grinders, and other equipment for them to get a feel what machining metal is all about. In the second quarter, they start getting into Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) for the first time.

I teach a manual CNC programming class that helps the students understand what a program should look like. This lets them look at a program coming out of a CAD system that may need a quick edit and figure out where to do that edit. It gives them a manual versus CNC mindset before they get into CAD/CAM.

In the second year of the program is where my approach to teaching is more hands-on than most of my peers would probably think to do. We do lecture and we do theory, of course. We talk about precision parts manufacture, die making, and mold making. We go through all the parts of the puzzle from the theory and lecture side. Then, whether they are designing robotics components, or stamping dies, or wire Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM) work for the mold and die program, the students program all the toolpaths in Mastercam for our rows of CNC machine tools that include the EDM machines and more than a dozen Haas milling and turning centers.

Then, along comes COVID-19 and we have to go from hands-on, chips flying, to 100 percent online instruction. The students were disappointed at first, but I used this as an opportunity to put them hands-on with their computers at home to learn multiaxis machining, giving them another skill set that can do them well on the job.

Moving our Machine Tool Technology program into a virtual world, the students can design a part, and through Mastercam, they can machine it virtually in simulation, verify the program, and do everything short of producing the actual part on a machine. One of the things I like about working at Dunwoody is that we have a lot of internal resources to help students who may be struggling. We have peer tutors who are available to them, as well as people who will set up online study meetings with them, go through some homework, and do some assignments with them.

It has been a challenge, dealing with the pandemic, but after devoting our “hands-on” approach to inventive CAD/CAM online sessions, we all seem to have adapted and are doing very well.