Nation's First Internet CAD/CAM Classroom Makes Successful Debut

Amid their drill bits and patterns, machinists and moldmakers around the country are adding new tools to their toolboxes - the Internet and a CD-ROM.

And the CD-ROM's author, Tennessee Technological University industrial technology professor Joyce Wilkerson, is using both the Internet and the CD-ROM to teach those machinists and moldmakers computer aided design and computer aided machining, commonly known as CAD/CAM. They also learn to use the country's most widely used CAD/CAM software, Mastercam.

How original is her effort? According to Wilkerson's research, it's the only CAD/CAM course on the Internet, it's the first of its type in the country and probably the world. It also garnered the 1998 Innovation Award from the Tennessee Board of Regents.

"In less than three weeks after the course was advertised, I received more than 990 inquiries from more than 40 countries," said Wilkerson. "But I could choose only 20 for the first class. It fills a need that no one else has filled until now."

Many of today's machinists use 2-D and 3-D designs to draw mechanical parts. They also work with machines whose motors are run by computer code, so workers need to master CAD/CAM in order to meet the demands of their jobs and seek promotions.

But as much as employees need new training and employers want workers trained, learning to use a computer for a manufacturing job is expensive, time-consuming and tough to teach. A copy of the most popular CAD/CAM software can cost a company around $13,000. Shops can't afford to train employees during the work day and sacrifice production. Even trained instructors have trouble explaining the concepts.

With Wilkerson's class and materials, the cost is relatively low, less than $400. Work can be done at a student's convenience at home, and instructions are easier to comprehend because of interactive full-motion video and 3-D animation.

"Try to teach that in words instead of pictures," Wilkerson challenged as she used the CD-ROM to show what path a machine tool would take while producing a design. "The videos and animation are worth far more than a thousand words when it comes to explaining what something looks like."

Trial and error in a machine shop has its consequences. If you choose a wrong tool, or run the right tool at the wrong speed, you can quickly ruin or destroy expensive material and waste time and money. No harm done with the same trial and error using the CD. Choose the wrong speed, a video shows the resulting poor product. Choose the wrong tool, you'll probably see a video of your chosen tool snapping into pieces.

"I'm now confident in my abilities to design and draw details for molds and dies," said Tony La Rocco, a student from Florida. "You can check your fits without spending the hours actually makingthe details, and you can use the computer to create a prototype made of almost any material without having to be in the shop."

Computer animation and help windows aren't the only feedback students receive. They take 15 tests which they e-mail to Wilkerson for review. She also sets aside at least one-hour a day to answer student e-mail about any problems or questions they have. La Rocco estimates he e-mailed Wilkerson 50 times during the course. And he supports Wilkerson's assertion that teachers can get their messages across using a computer.

"Even though she wasn't physically standing over my shoulder to give me instructions, she did an excellent job of explaining anything I did not understand," La Rocco said.

Many teachers fear that classes over the Internet lack one critical element in the teaching process - a chance for frequent and quality interaction between a student and teacher. Wilkerson dismissed that worry based on her experience and students' survey results.

"It's a real classroom," said Wilkerson. "You could really pick up on the personalities and needs of the students by paying attention to the e-mail. They talk about the same things other students talk about - their work, their families, even their bosses."

At the end of the course, the students send Wilkerson a computer code they've generated. Then she uses their code to produce the final product, a desk set engraved with the student's initials designed to hold items, such as pens, memo pads and paper clips.

"So many people said this kind of material couldn't be taught over the Internet because it was too graphic-intensive in nature," said Wikerson. "With the combination of a quality CD and constant student-teacher interaction, we've broken new ground on what kinds of classes can be possible over the Internet and how successful those classes will be for people seeking education outside a traditional classroom."