South West College is working closely with industry partners to maximise the benefits of its centres. It is pioneering the study of new and emerging disciplines including virtual and augmented reality, drone technology, building information modelling and gamification of learning, and is supporting business and industry with R&D services.
“We help small and medium sized companies develop products, refine processes and break into new markets. We’re engaging with around 1,500 businesses each year, through a dedicated team of around 20 engineers, scientists and designers, many qualified to PhD level,” says Deputy CEO Michael McAlister.
The college’s dedicated STEM centre at Dungannon is the only one of its type in Northern Ireland and has won several international awards including the AQA Award for College/School Partnerships and the Create Award for College Engagement with Employers.
“Our focus is ensuring that we have a pipeline of young people coming to the college to engage in STEM courses, so we use this centre as part of our outreach activity,” McAlister adds.
The Enniskillen campus hosts a CREST centre, specialising in sustainable energy and renewable technology. A leader in teaching and researching low carbon technologies and techniques such as biomass manufacturing, biogas optimisation and airtightness methods, it has sophisticated laboratory facilities for industry-standard testing. The centre is using 3 million GB pounds sterling of European funding to bring leading edge research and knowledge to the region. It is also providing training at designer and trade level in Passivhaus techniques for energy efficient housing.
At Enniskillen’s Image Centre, students have access to a range of cutting edge equipment used in the gaming and virtual reality sectors including motion-capture- technology. Students are also encouraged to take part in coding clubs on Saturdays and through summer schools.
Meanwhile, the Idea centre at the Omagh campus supports product development and rapid prototyping, including a range of 3D printers and lasers for different materials.
“Local companies use the centre to develop parts of machines and modules, but we also encourage students to use the centre. We run a MakerSpace activity for students and the general public, which is based around the concept of a social community of people that can share their skills and knowledge to design, create and manufacture products as well,” McAlister says.
As well as embracing new technologies, South West College is experimenting with different methods of teaching and learning. The college has been developing its online and distance learning capability, not only for the growing international student base, but also for local students.
“We’re trying to get to the point where 10 per cent of the curriculum in all subject areas is delivered online. The benefit of this development is flexibility. We’re in a rural location, spread across two counties, and some students have to travel long distances to work and study. Our online offering ensures that they won’t miss out during severe weather events. It can also support them whist they’re travelling to work placements elsewhere in Northern Ireland, across the UK or internationally,” McAlister explains.
South West College started working with the STEM Foundation around four years ago, and it has just revalidated its STEM Assured status.
“It has been a useful relationship, because it confirmed to us that our strategy was going in the right direction. The STEM Foundation gave us lots of encouragement and helped us to clarify our thinking. Through its extensive network of industry contacts, we were able to visit a number of companies in different parts of the UK and build a strong understanding of their STEM needs.”