Baker student blazes trail with heavy equipment simulators
Baker High School senior Dawson Vanderwiele translates her experience working with excavators at her grandfather's business, Triple C Redi-Mix, into her teaching on simulators in Baker Technical Institute's heavy equipment operation training. (Photo by Tara Vanderwiele, May 2018)
Dawson Vanderwiele’s earliest memories include napping on the floor of her dad’s backhoe. On her 10th birthday, she drove a full-size excavator by herself for the first time.
“I was just playing, digging holes,” said the Baker High School senior.
That playing has developed into a career pathway at Baker Technical Institute, a Baker School District collaboration with regional industry to provide career and technical education.
Vanderwiele helps teach BTI’s heavy equipment operator program. Representatives of Simformotion, the company that provides Caterpillar simulators, say she is the youngest and only female Caterpillar heavy equipment simulator trainer they know of in the United States.
Vanderwiele learned about heavy equipment at home. Vanderwiele’s grandparents own Triple C Redi-Mix, a sand, gravel and cement supply company. The aggregate pit and processing plant are in her backyard.
When BTI was considering starting a heavy equipment program last spring, Vanderwiele and her father, Casey, were invited to look at the equipment.
Vanderwiele was immediately hooked, and a new career path was born.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, this is cool; I want to be bigger in this,’” she said.
Students who take career and technical education courses are more likely to graduate, according to Oregon Department of Education statistics. School boards around the state have embraced CTE programs because the hands-on learning correlates with reduced dropout rates. The classes also give students a significant boost toward family-wage careers after high school.
In some of Oregon’s more rural areas, school districts have also seen CTE as a chance to help students find jobs in area industries. BTI began offering courses three years ago, training students in locally relevant subjects such as health care and agriculture.
“Dawson exemplifies what a student who takes advantage of these programs can accomplish,” said Kevin Cassidy, Baker School Board chair and OSBA Board vice president.
The depth of training has taught Vanderwiele about being a teacher, a technician, a leader, a problem solver and other things a letter grade can’t articulate, Cassidy said.
“Dawson is getting an A in life,” he said.
At least three-quarters of Baker’s more than 400 high school students are taking one BTI class or more. This school year, BTI has expanded its agriculture program to eighth-graders with the help of funds from Measure 98, the voter-approved effort to support career and technical education and lower dropout rates.
BTI exemplifies the school board’s mission statement for schools “to be the center of community vitality.” The center’s programs not only engage students but also offer training such as welding, culinary arts and health services that help adults re-enter the workforce.
Adults pay for training after school in the same facilities the students use for free. Adult classes generate enough income for Baker Technical Institute to be self-supporting, Cassidy said.
BTI President Doug Dalton said Vanderwiele was central to developing the heavy equipment simulator curriculum and assessment tools. She also worked with Simformotion to set up the simulators and troubleshoot problems. She continues to be the expert who makes sure the simulators relate to real work conditions.
“She will teach a class and then grab a wrench and go work on equipment,” Dalton said.
BTI has nine simulators: two bulldozers, two excavators, two loaders, a grader, a timber harvesting machine and a haul truck. Four simulators are housed in a trailer for a mobile training program. The simulators have the same controls as the real equipment, with video screens that replicate the operator’s view. Some of the simulators can tilt and buck to add to the realism.
Ken Pflederer, president and CEO of Simformotion, said Vanderwiele is passionate about utilizing the simulators and continues to be a key contact.
“She was just a natural,” he said. “She knows what it means to be practical in operating heavy equipment.”
Private training facilities usually handle heavy equipment certification, with a few colleges also offering courses. Laure Foley, Oregon Department of Education director of secondary/post-secondary transitions and career and technical education, did not know of any other high school programs in Oregon like Baker's. Some Oregon high schools use heavy equipment simulators as part of general construction classes.
Technically Vanderwiele is a teacher’s assistant during the school day, because Oregon law won’t let her be a teacher yet. But after school, she is the main paid instructor. Adults interested in heavy equipment operation can take a general course covering a bulldozer, a grader, a loader and an excavator or get specialized training on their choice of equipment.
Vanderwiele said sometimes adults downgrade her abilities or think she is just there for her computer knowledge.
“She earns their respect quickly, and from that point she’s just another instructor,” Dalton said.
Vanderwiele has also taught some women-only classes to encourage more women to move into heavy equipment operation.
Vanderwiele can vouch for the training’s realism. Western States Cat dropped off a new grader for a class demonstration at the wrong location. Vanderwiele moved it to the right spot. The grader had different controls than Vanderwiele had used at home, but she had trained on it with the simulators.
“I just drove something that no one else here knows how to run, which never happens at our place because they always teach me,” she said.
Cass Vanderwiele, who owns Triple C Redi-Mix, is proud of his granddaughter’s work. He sees a need in the community and local industry for more skilled labor.
“This is a valid start for BTI and I hope it grows and takes off,” he said. “I’m really glad Dawson has been part of it.”
Vanderwiele had planned to study wildlife biology so she could get a job with the Oregon Department of Forestry somewhere near her hometown. But the simulator program has ignited a passion for teaching, and those who watch her say she is good at it.
Vanderwiele now plans to go to Blue Mountain Community College to get a business degree and prepare for a four-year degree to become a teacher. Someday she hopes to take over the family business, but she also wants to keep teaching people how to become heavy equipment operators.
David Frazey, the BTI heavy equipment teacher, says it will be tough next year without Vanderwiele. He is glad she will continue to offer support and work with the program while at school.
“She was instrumental in getting this program off the ground and the quality it has reached,” he said.
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