Northark HVAC gets new virtual reality lab
By MICKI Somers North Arkansas College
Carlos Escobar is on his knees on a 90 degree day to fix a heating and cooling system that isn’t working, but he isn’t even sweating.
North Arkansas College’s heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) student resides in the comfort and safety of the college’s newest high-tech training tool: a virtual reality (VR) lab.
VR is often associated with gaming, but it’s not just for entertainment. The technology vastly improves training for skilled crafts.
Northark HVAC instructor Jeff Smith said VR for HVAC systems was developed a few years ago to help contractors maintain and improve their skills, but now the systems have been adapted for educational and training purposes.
The VR systems use scenes and scripts that guide students through different scenarios so that they can identify problems. The HVAC components and tools look real, and the systems even allow students to work in real-life home or outdoor environments.
“The students love it,” Smith says. “VR is a great addition to the program and I can’t say enough good things about it.”
Smith said students begin the three-semester HVAC technical certificate program or the one-semester certificate of proficiency program with hands-on labs and lectures before using the VR system, which is linked to the curriculum. In addition to classroom and fieldwork, students have VR assignments to complete.
“The VR gives students an additional means of training and support to build on what they have already learned in lectures and lab,” he said.
Northark’s program has three VR systems and hopes to acquire three more in the coming months.
Escobar said it was a little difficult to use VR at first, but with some practice he was able to get the hang of it.
“It’s interesting because you can safely learn about HVAC,” he said. “We can practice with the VR.”
Fellow student Jay Lamb agrees, saying VR is a great tool for learning new skills.
“You get to do something hands-on, but not really on a job site,” he said.
Smith said students should have no problem finding jobs with the skills they learn in Northark’s HVAC program. He said there is always a demand for HVAC technicians in every part of the country, and HVAC technicians in the Harrison area can earn an average of $30,000 to $40,000 per year.
Escobar said the need for technicians drew him to the HVAC field.
“There are many opportunities,” he said. “You can find a job like this everywhere. It can be hot at times, but it’s a good job.”
Registration for the fall semester is currently open. Classes start on August 16. Call 870-391-3505 or visit www.northark.edu for more information.