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Shifting Gears – NAIT navigates hands-on learning in unprecedented times

BY JULIA LLOYD

Amid the pandemic, many students have been forced to take education into their own hands, pursuing courses from home via the internet—but students of skilled trades don’t have the luxury of remote learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a massive shift in the realms of education as university and college students across Canada study from the shelter of their own homes. But when the assignment rubric calls for a bumper replacement or structural repair—what’s an autobody repair student to do?

Fortunately, for students at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), the trades college has been able to continue in-class teaching for 27 of its 28 apprenticeship programs. Ryan Pomedli, an instructor for NAIT’s autobody apprenticeship program and a veteran in the autobody industry, said the college has added several protocols to prevent any COVID outbreaks.

“We have a lot of equipment we already wear so some of this stuff isn’t so much changing completely, but changing how often we do it,” explained Pomedli. “For example, in the shop we always required students to wear safety footwear and glasses and then, whenever they are standing there wearing an N-95 mask or if they are using a rotating tool, they use a face shield—but now students are wearing their masks all the time.”

Pomedli says students must always wear a face shield. During lunch time, the instructors are expected to disinfect the shop, and, at the end of the day, instructors complete a more thorough cleaning.

Due to COVID, the program has been restructured to meet the needs of social distancing guidelines by having the least number of students on campus at any given time. Normally, the program would be comprised of a half day of theory and half day in the shop. Now, with the COVID protocols, students complete three weeks straight of theory online and three weeks inside the bodyshop.

“We’re seeing roughly 62 percent less people on all our campuses combined from years previous,” said NAIT’s media relations specialist, Nicole Graham. “The autobody apprenticeship program is now being organized by introducing staggered groups of students.”

The first group of students will start theory and, once they move on to the shop portion of the semester, the second group of students start their three weeks of theory and so on, until the first semester of the program concludes. The main challenge for the students is “trying to work in the shop with your mask on, wearing your safety glasses and everything. It’s always fogging up and all that, it’s kind of tough,” autobody student Hateem Ibrahim said.

Autobody Instructor Cecile Bukmeier believes the main challenge for both students and teachers is the transition to blended learning. But for Pomedli, the biggest challenge is the lack of raw communication he has with his students.

“One of the biggest challenges, and it doesn’t matter if we are doing online theory or in the shop, is the inability to read facial expressions. For example, online some people have their cameras on but it’s so small you can’t read any facial expressions, and with the masks in the shop, you can’t read their facial expressions there either,” explained Pomedli. “When I’m typically doing theory, I can gage the entire class’s comprehension without asking but rather through engagement, but now it’s a little harder. My main communication in theory is the little thumbs up icon in the chat.”

Pomedli is a NAIT auto body apprentice graduate and after years of success in the autobody industry, he decided to come back and teach at NAIT. Pomedli is currently the longest serving instructor in the auto body program and was involved with Skills Canada Competitions for several the years, competing in Worlds in Montreal 1999.

For him, the greatest benefit to industry is its tight-knit community, however, with COVID protocols, that communication is lacking, and connections are not being built.

“It is a bit harder to get to know somebody when all you ever do is see them in a chatroom, or socially distancing at lunch you’re sitting at individual tables, it makes it hard for them to really get to know one another. Like when you’re in the office you can go over to the stalls over whoever might be able to answer the questions and you pick their brain a little bit but now it’s one of those things where we have to do a conference call and they are busy.”

But he stays optimistic for the future that things will go back to what the apprentice program looked like before the pandemic.

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