This is the fourth in our Take Five series on outstanding VCCS faculty members. Our objective is to shine a light on those who are innovating while educating and, in the process, taking classroom instruction and student engagement to a whole new level.
In this edition, we meet Marcella Gale assistant professor of Mechatronics at Central Virginia Community College (CVCC), a self-described “geek” who automates her own home just for fun.
1. You teach mechatronics at CVCC. What prompted you to choose a career in this field of endeavor?
Mechatronics, in name and discipline, is a mashup of mechanics, electronics, robotics, and IT. The field addresses today’s highly automated production environments. Another name for it is Advanced Manufacturing. The pandemic will hasten the rate at which our world will become automated. Any process that is repetitive, no matter the complexity, will become automated at some point. I tell my students that the way to guarantee that you are the robot overlord, is to come to the Mechatronics program!
I began my career many years ago as an electrical engineer. I worked in the communications industry with an engineering department sitting on the second floor, and a production factory on the first floor. I spent time in both areas and became keenly aware of how engineering decisions have consequences in the production environment. After the birth of my third child, I decided to take a break from my career and stay home with them. I spent 20 years homeschooling and they are all became successful adults. When I ran out of people to teach at home, I had to make a decision whether to go back to the world of engineering or stay in the world of teaching. I decided that if I could help people have better lives by teaching them some of the random stuff I knew, that would make me happiest! I entered a CTE master’s program while teaching as an adjunct professor, and was hired as a full-time faculty member upon my graduation. The first thing I was tasked with was establishing the Mechatronics associates degree at CVCC. My experience both in industry and in teaching have been invaluable in creating a program driven by local industry needs and support.
2. How would you characterize the demand nowadays for students who may be thinking about a career in mechatronics? How long does it take to develop the skill set necessary to excel in this field?
Local industry leaders tell me to keep cranking out mechatronics graduates! I can barely make them fast enough to supply the local need. The types of jobs and careers available are quite varied and I’ve had great success in matching student interests and abilities with open positions in the area.
Students can earn a career studies certificate in one year or an associate of applied science in two. Along the way, they earn multiple industry certifications that improve their employability and salaries upon hire. The longer they stay in the program, the higher their earning potential. Many students in the program are simultaneously employed, either in the field or in a job to make ends meet until they finish. Quite a few of my students are hired in a mechatronics position before they finish the degree. Local employers have been great about paying tuition, covering textbooks, and working around class schedules.
3. Now that we have moved to a mostly virtual learning environment, what strategies or techniques are you using to make that all-important connection with your students?
I have always been very close with my students. I am their program head, academic advisor, and teacher for several of their classes. Since we’ve moved to a mostly virtual environment I’ve continued doing the things I used to do, which is answer texts at all hours of the day and night, help them set up their schedules, and mediate any issues they have with other instructors, etc. When some of my older students were having trouble with the level of digitization required to turn in homework, I set up a mailbox in my yard. The students can drive through the half circle driveway, leave their homework in the mailbox, pick up graded homework, and never get out of their cars. I’ll meet with anybody in a private Zoom call that wants to, or text and email as usual. Since graduation had to be canceled, I mailed out “congratulations on your graduation” cards to everyone that completed a CSC or an AAS.
4. What does the future of manufacturing look like in your opinion?
In my opinion it’s going to be “go go gadget”! The pandemic has served to highlight the need for our country to produce more goods here at home. We need to improve designs, supply chains, manufacturing facilities, and delivery methods. The future of manufacturing is also increasingly remote. The CEO on a panel at a recent conference I attended gave us this message for our students: Remote work, learning, and communication are all here to stay. Even if you are a technician on-site, you need to be able to communicate effectively to other important entities that are not on-site. Remote and virtual environment experience will be a resume-enhancer going forward. The mechatronics program aims to continue to provide a good balance of hands-on skills building as well as remote learning and education.
5. Please tell us something about yourself that would help our readers get to know you a little better (e.g., personal interests, hobbies, etc.).
My favorite new interest is my one-year-old granddaughter, Fiona. She currently lives in Nebraska, so we are also working on remote communication and relationship building! I’m happy to report that her toy of choice is usually something with wheels on it! I also love plants and gardening. My son calls me the crazy plant lady! I also have fun automating my house – true to form, anything that is repetitive should be automated! Thus, I love timers, programmable appliances, automatic garden waterers, etc. Yes, I’m a hopeless geek.