It may not sound very teacherly to say so, but Moraine Park Technical College instructor Jeff Sonnleitner isn’t a huge fan of textbook learning.
“Things change so fast; things are adopted so quickly. You can’t take two years to make a decision anymore like you did 20 years ago. Everything is, ‘Let’s do it,’” says Sonnleitner, an instructor in MPTC’s network specialist program.
Experiential learning, he says, does a more effective job of preparing students for a career. Two offerings in the MPTC information technology department provide students just that.
Three years ago, MPTC began partnering with the Fond du Lac Senior Center for Tech Tyme. For two hours each Thursday afternoon, a pair of students from MPTC’s IT Club visits the center to answer seniors’ technology questions.
Rather than providing a broad-based technology class, Cathy Loomans, director of the senior center, says she wanted to offer one-on-one assistance. Through the program, participants not only leave with a solution to their tech problem, they have the knowledge about how to fix it if it arises again.
During the two-hour stints, seniors can bring their phone or tablet, take a number and get 15 minutes of one-on-one time with an IT student. A typical day could bring queries about how to open or upload a picture or how to use various social media platforms.
“Between their tai chi and going to their grandchildren’s soccer game, they’re trying to figure out how to SnapChat. Using those apps keeps them connected to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Technology facilitates a lot of relationships, too,” Loomans says of the age-50-plus population that uses the center.
In addition to forging better personal connections, the program, which served more than 500 seniors as of last year, helps those in the younger and older generations understand one another better. Users of the senior center see that young people aren’t unmotivated and aimless, and the students realize that senior center users aren’t “90 and sitting in a wheelchair playing bingo,” Loomans says.
Bobbi Fields, associate dean of business and IT for MPTC, says the program provides students a chance to practice their communication skills and gives them tangible experience they can add to a resume or reference during a job interview.
In addition, Tech Tyme calls on the volunteers to connect with people they wouldn’t normally interact with and educate as they communicate. These experiences require students to know their stuff, thus helping build confidence, she says.
“It’s just wonderful. Not only does the community love it, it really makes our students more prepared for the next steps,” Fields says.
Education in action
Another Moraine Park project also prepares students for the workforce.
Sonnleitner, who teaches a class called Emerging Innovations in Technology, says a call for entries in the Foxconn Smart Cities – Smart Future competition caught his attention. The competition invited individuals and teams from Wisconsin’s colleges and universities to develop and submit “smart” proposals to improve and enhance living and working environments.
The instructor immediately started brainstorming how he could incorporate the competition into his class. As Sonnleitner began to generate ideas with his students, he invited Fields into class one day, and she saw it as an opportunity to create an inter-disciplinary project.
Fields began asking questions about how the group would build the project and execute the necessary technical aspects as well as how much it would cost and how they would market it. A group of seven students ballooned to 30, and eventually, business management, small business entrepreneurship, accounting, social media and digital marketing, and web and mobile applications students joined the effort.
The group developed a business plan and created marketing while accounting students ran numbers to figure out how much the project would cost. Their efforts led to a final product: Gallivant, an app that aims to bring the technology of smart cities to rural small businesses and communities.
Gallivant uses smart highway technology to help users navigate through small towns and highlights events and landmarks along the way. The promotion video produced by the group points out, astoundingly, that 97 percent of Wisconsin is considered rural, and 1.75 million people in the state live in small cities or rural communities.
The Moraine Park crew entered Gallivant in the Foxconn competition as well as The Fox Connection’s The Pitch, an entrepreneurial competition among college teams in Northeast Wisconsin. While it didn’t advance in the Foxconn competition or win The Pitch, Fields and Sonnleitner say the experience still proved valuable.
Fields says developing Gallivant produced many aha moments for the students. The process continually revealed aspects they hadn’t consid-ered and helped participants figure out who they would need to work with to get tasks accomplished.
The project also helped students build their entrepreneurial chops and begin to embrace and accept the idea of failing fast and often, Sonnleitner says.
“I think all of them learned that no idea is a crazy idea. Throwing things out in a discussion eventually can come to fruition somewhere,” he says. “Not everything is going to work right out of the box the first time. You learn to take the lumps along the way. Most of the very successful people, that’s the way they’ve built their businesses.”