Archive for February, 2010

What exactly is Precision Agriculture?

Friday, February 26th, 2010
Working the Field

Working the Field

Image: vitasamb2001 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We’ve been speaking a lot about Precision Agriculture on ATETV- who is using it, how they are using it, how it is vital to the efficiency and production efforts of farmers, etc. But what is it exactly? We thought it was an interesting enough topic to delve still further into and get greater insight into this new and exciting field.

Precision Agriculture is the use of technology to understand and manage varibility in fields and crops. Emerging technologies such as remotely sensed imagery, GPS, and GIS allow farmers to survey their land and collect information to create maps that identify crop specific variables like soil nutrients, management practices, soil characteristics, past yields, level of moisture, pest infestations, etc down to the specific meter. This data helps farmers manage their fields for economic or environmental benefits. The many benefits include: reduce costs for crop inputs like fertilizer that would have been spread in areas that don’t need it and can now be placed in areas that do, better time management for the farmer and reduction of agricultural impact by targeting the use of pesticides and other chemicals. It also allows the farmer to more specifically document a history of his or her practices and results to pass on to future workers.

The field of Precision Agriculture has been around for at least 10 years but the basics of it are nothing new. Collecting data and making decisions based on that data are central principles of farming and have been around for many years. When plots of land were smaller in size, this was obviously easier. But as they grew, this no longer was possible. New tools and techniques were waiting to be discovered. Created in the mid 1960s, the Geographic Information System (GIS) was probably the first precision farming tool developed. It provided tools for analysis.

Then came several different soil testers and other instruments designed to make the techniques of farming still easier and more accurate. What remained was how to streamline all of this information and translate it to a broader, all encompassing picture of the area that could be used to further improve practices.

Along came the Global Positioning System (GPS). With enough satellites available in late 1980s and early 1990s, it was possible to use GPS receivers to determine individual location for all of this data. What that meant for the farming industry then was that farmers would now be able to analyze all that data for smaller manageable “subfields” and program a computer to position application of nutrients and seed where they are needed spatially on the land. These subfields, which are hundreds of separately manageable units, allow the farmer to make decisions that are much more efficient than on a whole field basis.

As new and emerging technologies, they will continue to be applied to a wide number of industries including agriculture. The use of pneumatic systems now allow equipment to automatically shutoff the application of seed or nutrients on areas that have already been applied, eliminating double application. The use of identification tags along with GPS will allow farmers to accurately track and manage individual animals. Optic systems will allow the identification of specific pests and the automatic application of a pesticide only on that pest, reducing costs and the use of chemicals.

Where this goes from here then is anyone’s guess. Perhaps tools will be invented that collect data and make decisions in real-time? Maybe we will utilize small field robots one day? Anything is possible. Special thanks to Terry Brase at Kirkwood Community College for his input on this topic!

ATETV Episode 23: One Degree, Multiple Possibilities

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

This week, we explore some of the many different paths you can take with a degree in Information and Communications Technologies and learn more about the applications of Precision Agriculture.

First, we delve deeper into the fields of Information and Communications Technologies. “I think students are naturally drawn to careers in IT and ICT. They are immersed in it. Telecommunications, networking, security, wireless…. they live, eat and breathe this stuff, “says Mike Qaissaunee of Brookdale Community College, “and they assume they know everything about it, just because they do it every day.” But once these same students are in a class, the picture changes and it becomes more about the mechanics of how things work. With this new information and the hands-on experiences provided at local community colleges, students interested in Information and Communications Technologies graduate with many different options available to them.

The same is true for those students graduating from programs in Agriculture Technology. As farmers work to make their industries more productive and efficient, those with a background and experience in Precision Agriculture become more and more in demand. Precision Agriculture is the application of mapping technologies like GPS/GIS systems to better understand in-field variability. This allows farmers to adjust for localized differences relative to specific areas and crops. Students studying this can expect to find opportunites working with seed dealers, seed companies, farmers, cooperatives, chemical companies and many more.

One thing is certain, with a degree in advanced technology comes plenty of job security and many possible career choices! The only challenge maybe deciding on one! Thanks for watching.

Home Energy Audits: Greening Your Home, and Saving You Money

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

In the past couple episodes, we’ve focused on home energy audits as a growing source of good, green jobs that can’t be outsourced. Today we’re going to take a look at the process from the homeowner’s perspective, explaining what goes into an energy audit and what actions homeowners can take to save energy and money.

According to Sinclair Community College Professor Robert Gilbert (featured in this week’s episode), a home energy audit looks at four different aspects of a home’s energy efficiency. First, technicians determine how well-insulated the building’s walls, ceilings, windows and foundation are. Gilbert says that up to 60% of a home’s heating and cooling costs are due to “air infiltration.” By blowing air in through the doorway of the house and measuring the pressure inside, technicians can measure how airtight a home is and where the leaks are.

Second, technicians test the mechanical parts of the house: the heating and cooling systems, major appliances like washers and dryers, and even the type of lightbulbs a home has. But just as important as what stuff a home has is how the folks inside use it, which is the third part of the audit. Technicians look at when residents are home, what temperature the thermostat is set to and even how often the TV is on. Finally, technicians will look at utility bills to see exactly how much fuel and electricity the home is using.

Gilbert credits tax rebates and incentive programs offered by utility companies and state and Federal governments for the increased demand for audits — and, by extension, for audit technicians. Another factor is that more homeowners are realizing that small steps can lead to big savings on their utility bills.

A home energy audit is a great way to get your home to peak efficiency, but you don’t have to wait to start saving. To save electricity, Gilbert suggests replacing incandescent light bulbs with florescent models; turning off lights in unoccupied rooms; plugging TVs and other electronics into power strips, and turning them off when not in use; and unplugging items like cell phone chargers, which drain electricity even when not in use.

To save on heating and cooling, Gilbert suggests turning down the thermostat at night and when you aren’t home; programmable thermostats are particularly handy for this. And if you’re up for a do-it-yourself project, caulking and foaming over areas where air is leaking out of the house can result in big savings.

You can find more helpful tips and information on energy audits online. Energy Star, the energy efficiency program run by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, has a page where you can find a professional energy audit company near you and compare your energy usage to that of other homes in your area.

Thanks to Professor Gilbert for his help this week and for his practical energy-saving tips!

ATETV Episode 22: More on Green Jobs and Industry Partnerships; Plus, Computer Careers

Monday, February 15th, 2010

This week, we’re continuing with a couple of topics from recent weeks: industry partnerships and green jobs. We’re also profiling a young father who’s fitting in his own homework in computer security between helping his kids with theirs.

First, we head to Bristol Community College to profile the partnership between the ATE program there and the local environmental and mechanical engineering industries. At Bristol, that partnership translates to input on curriculum via an industrial advisory board, and access to valuable internships like the one student Mike Poitras completed at a desalination plant.

Mike’s position at the plant is the kind of job that can’t be outsourced. The same goes for the energy technician jobs that Sinclair Community College is training its students to fill. The demand for these positions making buildings more energy efficient already outstrips the supply of workers, and the gap is widening. “The problem is not going to be a market” for these service, predicts Mike Train of Certified Energy Raters LLC. “It’s going to be having boots on the ground to service that market.”

One reason energy conservation is becoming a hot topic is the amount of electricity that our computers and other digital devices are consuming. At Springfield Technical Community College, student Francisco Nofal studying computer security, another hot career in our increasingly wired world. Francisco enrolled at STCC after a layoff. Now he’s balancing his studies with being a husband and father. “I get homework, they get homework, so I can’t do mine when I get home. I gotta wait, help them with theirs.”

Hopefully for Francisco all that homework will pay off, for him and his kids. Tune in next week for three more ATE success stories like his!

Lesson Plan: Building Trebuchets and Teamwork

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

As we saw in this week’s episode, community colleges and industry have come together to prepare students for in-demand jobs. But as we’ve been hearing from many ATETV viewers, employers are looking for more than just technical know-how. They’re also looking for employees who know how to communicate and who can work well in a group.

To that end, this week we’re presenting a lesson plan used by Jerry Duncan, head of the Process Technology program at College of the Mainland featured in this week’s episode. In this exercise, teams of students work together to build trebuchets — a kind of catapult that uses a counterweight to launch its ordinance.

“Each team is given the same plans and material to build a trebuchet, then the competition begins,” explains Duncan. “The team with the most accurate, longest throwing trebuchet receives the highest grade. The students are also peer graded on their work and contribution to the team.”

But what does a medieval siege weapon have to do with Process Technology? It all comes down to teamwork and the changing workplace. “Modern manufacturing sites have computerized and modernized their work processes so that many layers of supervision are gone,” explains Duncan. “The employees typically work in teams. They have few supervisors, so they have to work together with minimal direction to meet their production and quality goals.”

Duncan reports that the lesson is a big hit with his students. “They spend hours building, testing and refining their trebuchets,” he says. “They have learned teamwork skills, mechanical skills and basic troubleshooting skills, all of which will help them in their new careers in Process Technology.” And although Duncan uses this plan with community college students, it’s easily adaptable to high school classes.

Click here to download the lesson plan. Thanks to Jerry Duncan for his help with this week’s blog entry!

ATETV Episode 21: Industry/Community College Partnerships

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Last week we focused on the demand for technician jobs, green and otherwise. This week we’re looking at how community colleges are teaming up with industry leaders to meet that demand.

“We couldn’t exist without the technical college,” says Jill Heiden of ESAB Welding and Cutting Products in South Carolina. “They create the students that help us produce our products.”

And because these students are so vital, industry has taken an active role in their education. “Industry partners are valuable at helping you develop curriculum in the college,” says Elaine Craft, head of the South Carolina ATE Center. “You discuss what it is that they need and how you can best meet those needs.”

That industry/education partnership is going strong in South Carolina, but it’s an important part of ATE programs across the country. At The College of the Mainland in Texas, Process Technology students like Umair Virani are learning how to use the same equipment in the field at major oil refineries. Umair actually has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, but he decided he wanted hands-on experience that would let him work in an environment outside the lab.

Finally, we visit the Video Simulation and Game Development program at Wake Technical Community College, which is located near the Research Triangle in North Carolina, a hotbed of the game industry. Wake Technical’s Kai Wang says one of the missions of the program is “trying to meet local industry demand” from those game makers.

To accomplish that, the school asks the industry for input. “We work very closely with industry representatives, advisory committees, and they really drive what we train individuals on,” explains Wake’s Robert Grove. “When students are finished with us, they are ready to enter the workforce because we have designed that program based upon what they have told us to do.”

Whether it’s video game design, oil refining or high-tech manufacturing, employers are looking for specific skills. By working with them directly, community colleges are making sure that the lessons they are teaching are preparing students for the real world.

Growing Green Jobs

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Last week’s State of the Union address was all about jobs, and one promising avenue for job growth the President highlighted is the new green economy.

In his speech, Obama framed the need to invest in those types of jobs in terms of keeping pace with international competitors like China, Germany and India. “These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They’re making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.”

Indeed, according to a New York Times report, China is now the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines and is making gains in other green fields as well.

If America wants to keep up, ATE programs at community colleges will be vital to training new green workers and retraining older workers for new green jobs. Perhaps that’s why President Obama repeated his call for more funding for community colleges in his speech last week, calling them “a career pathway for the children of many working families.”

There are two sides to greening the economy: investing in new renewable energy projects or cleaner transportation infrastructure like high-speed rail; and improving energy efficiency in order to better conserve heat and electricity. We saw an example of each of these types of green jobs in this week’s episode. At Laramie County Community College in Wyoming, students are learning how to operate and maintain the wind turbines that are popping up across the West.

Meanwhile, at Sinclair Community College, students are working with local affordable housing groups to conduct green energy audits and weatherize homes. And both of these types of jobs need to be done here, in America; they can’t be sent overseas.

The hope is that last year’s unprecedented federal investment in basic scientific research will seed a new green manufacturing sector, building advanced batteries and solar cells. That will mean new green jobs for laid-off manufacturing workers, but first they’ll be need to be retrained. And ATE programs at community colleges across the country will be on the front lines of that training.

Click here to read about some of the green job titles expected to see the biggest growth in the coming years.

ATETV Episode 20: It’s All about Jobs

Monday, February 1st, 2010

ATETV hits a milestone with its 20th episode this week, and we’re marking the occasion by focusing on the issue of jobs and the needs of our workforce. In particular, this week we look at how ATE programs are training students for work in the new green economy, and to meet the high demand for technicians in many fields.

First, we head out to Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Jonathan Terry is studying to be a wind turbine technician. Jonathan actually has a bachelor’s degree in international business, but he went back to school because he saw that wind energy is a growing industry.

Jonathan’s story illustrates a larger issue we cover in our second segment this week: the need for skilled technicians in many industries, from green tech to lab work. “The ability for the two-year community colleges to deliver these workers as quickly as they can, this is an area that has become critical to the United States economic position in the world,” says Ellen Bemben of the Regional Technology Corporation.

Finally, we take a look at one specific type of green job that’s in high demand. Sinclair Community College is partnering with affordable housing groups to conduct energy audits and weatherize homes. “It creates an awareness about what can be gained from energy efficiency,” says Sinclair’s Bob Gilbert. “And the possibilities for our students in the job market just keeps increasing and increasing.”

As the country continues to focus on creating more opportunities for the future, students should look into community colleges as a fast, cost-effective way to prepare for secure, in-demand careers.