BIG RAPIDS, Mich. - Ferris State University has had many educational firsts for the hvacr industry. It is one of only two post-secondary institutions in the country to offer a bachelor's degree in hvacr technology. (The other program is at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pa.)

But now Ferris is taking its degree program and venturing into new territory that will set it apart from other educational institutions. This month, the university will launch the first online bachelor's degree program in hvacr engineering technology in the U.S.

Anyone who is up on current hvacr education trends will tell you that online learning for the industry has been an elusive goal. The United Association and HVACREducation.net have been among the few organizations able to provide heating and air-conditioning training via the Internet. Now Ferris is taking this technology and creating a whole new opportunity that is a genuine first for the industry.

According to Mike Feutz, department head for Ferris' hvacr program, the university began to notice a real interest in online education and in the bachelor's degree program several years ago during the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Expo. Ferris State annually sets up a booth at the expo to educate attendees about the university's hvacr degrees and what the program can offer.

"Many people wanted to know where they could go to get this (degree)," Feutz said.

He would explain to the attendees that the only way would be to attend Ferris State. With AHR Expo participants coming from all over the country, several asked Feutz if the courses could be made available through long-distance learning.

Ferris hvacr department chairman Mike Feutz (second from left), said Ferris State University's online degree program has been a longtime goal.

A bright idea

"That was when the little light bulb came on and said that there was a market for this," Feutz said.

This idea was also reinforced when Ferris did some market research and found out that there was a great deal of interest in an hvacr bachelor's degree and online learning.

Also, Ferris State conducted hvacr courses for individuals in Grand Rapids, Mich., an hour south of the Big Rapids campus. Adult students in Grand Rapids take part in adult education through the Ferris program, which allows them to earn their degree while keeping their full-time jobs.

This program, along with the market research, made it clear to those at Ferris State that there was a real desire for pursuing a bachelor's degree in Hvacr Engineering Technology via online learning.

Getting the online program up and running was a challenge for the Ferris hvacr department, but according to Feutz, everything is set to go and the university is accepting applications for participation in the program.

Feutz said he believes that online learning is a valuable and viable learning alternative, but stressed that it is not for everyone.

Although the online degree program is open to anyone who has already earned an associate's degree in hvacr technology, Feutz recommends that prospective students have some experience in the industry before signing up for the online course.

"The best education for inexperienced hvacr students will still be on campus," he said, "but for those with experience, this is a great alternative."

Virtual classroom

Students will learn online everything they would learn by being in the classroom, Feutz said. The only difference is that students must have the discipline to participate and take part in the coursework on their own.

There are some detractors who say that an online course in hvacr cannot work, Feutz added. The argument is that distance learning leaves out a fundamental component of learning any trade: hands-on training.

Feutz said that this issue has been dealt with. First, since the bachelor degree program is an engineering technology program, the main tool used by students is the computer. It is used to perform load calculations, system selection, energy analysis, and design, along with direct digital control work. A student working on a computer can be at home just as well as they can be on campus.

Second, the three courses that include hands-on learning experience in commissioning and direct digital controls require a trip to the Big Rapids campus that varies in length from a weekend to a full week. Feutz said that these trips take place once a year and are needed to maintain the quality of the educational experience, and to verify that students are truly learning what is presented online.

The university is also in the early stages of setting up satellite campuses for the program. This would allow students to attend a training center closer to home, instead of making the trip to Michigan.

The online course is also very close to a regular classroom session. In fact, Feutz said he believes there are some benefits to the online version.

Coursework adapted

Ferris faculty adapted on-campus coursework for the Internet using a Tegrity Smart Cart. This technology uses a computer, projector, and three cameras to capture actual lecture sessions and deliver them from the classroom to the student's computer screen using CD-ROMs. This means that a student working at home is actually watching an instructor on campus teach the course lessons. The Tegrity program can also project any kind of teaching aids the instructor is using, including overheads or other visual material.

The entire class is organized using course management software adopted by Ferris called WebCT. This Web-based software provides links to all aspects of the course, and includes communication tools such as e-mail, bulletin boards, and chat rooms.

These lessons are also archived, which Feutz said is a huge benefit to students.

"When you teach, most of the questions you answer are over material that you have already covered," he said. "Students often need more time to digest new material and sometimes they just weren't listening. So they ask questions to clarify something that you have said."

With this in mind, if an online student is confused about a particular concept, all he or she has to do is pause the presentation to spend more time on that concept or navigate back over parts that didn't sink in at first. Since lessons are archived, when it is time to apply a lesson that may been presented a month or even a year ago, a student only needs to load up the appropriate CD-ROM and view the lecture again.

Feutz added that the online program also allows students to interact with each other. Each student is required to post information or respond to questions at the Web site bulletin board. This promotes communication among other students, which Feutz said is essential for any educational program and especially important for online learning.

The course requires homework, tests, and quizzes, just like any other college course. Homework and tests can be submitted online or through e-mail. In some cases, quizzes will be presented to the student during a lesson. The student must complete the quiz and submit it before continuing with the current session.

Getting started

To register for Ferris' online bachelor's degree program, students are asked to complete an application for admission, which can be filled out online, or mailed or faxed back to the university.

Once students are registered, they receive a password, which enables them to access the online learning area. Students also receive in the mail all of the tools they will need to participate in the course. This includes training CDs with class lectures and textbooks.

The very first course, set to begin this month, is Hvacr 332: Secondary Equipment Selection and Design. Following successful completion of this course, students then move on to Hvac 333: Secondary Equipment Selection and Design-Laboratory. This will require the students to spend a weekend at the Big Rapids campus for their hands-on training.

In all, participants will complete 30 credit hours through seven online courses and three condensed and intensive hands-on sessions. An additional 34 credits of general education courses and internship is required to earn the degree. The general education credits can be taken at any community college or university and transferred to Ferris to meet graduation requirements.

For more information or to register for the bachelor's degree program, call (800) 526-9130 Ext. 2351, or contact Mike Feutz at feutzm@ferris.edu (e-mail), or visit www.ferris. edu/ucel (Web site).

Ferris State's option of earning a B.S. degree in hvacr engineering technology on the Internet comes at a time when qualified hvacr graduates are in great demand. In December 2001, Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin's office noted that for each student currently graduating from the program at Ferris State, there is an average of 25 job openings.

"When our students graduate, they are prepared to be productive on the first day of the job," Feutz said. "The program is focused on real-world, rather than theoretical hvacr applications."