A Different Kind of Tech Education


Four or five nights a week, as many as 75 students fill to capacity the state-of-the-art lab at College of DuPage (COD) in Glen Ellyn. The program has more out-of-district students than any other at the college, drawing not just from Chicagoland, but from across the U.S.

If you are thinking the program involves tech, you’d be correct. But probably not the kind of tech you are envisioning. The popular program is HVACR, which stands for Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration.

It’s "the best kept secret in DuPage County," says Bob Clark, of the HVACR program he has coordinated since 2013.

Among those in the HVACR industry, however, the program is anything but a secret. "Everybody knows about us," says Clark. "When you talk to anyone in HVACR, they say ‘COD is the place.’"

As a result, the HVACR program at COD has seen a pretty consistent five to 10 percent increase in students every year. "But we can’t grow any more," says Clark. "We don’t have the space."

The growth and popularity of the HVACR program at COD really kicked into gear six years ago with the development of the 13,000-sq-ft instructional lab, built entirely by students. The facility contains a micro-sized commercial building, allowing students to get hands-on experience working in conditions and scenarios found in real commercial building environments.

"You can’t usually play with an HVACR system — it’s critical and you’d break it," says Clark. "But we have our own little climate." 

"We have people come in and say, ‘This is what we needed when I was in school!’" adds Clark. "I’ve been to a LOT of labs, there’s not very many anywhere doing what we’re doing — not at Cornell, not at Princeton."

Clark knows of what he speaks — a Princeton mechanical engineering alum who recently visited COD’s Technical Education Center was awed by it.    

"This is what I thought an automation program should look like, so it’s what we built," says Clark, who was recently named Region III Postsecondary Career Technical Educator of the Year by the Association for Career and Technical Education and is now a candidate for the national award.

A serial student himself, Clark has associates degrees in Electrical and Electronic Automated Systems, Industrial Maintenance Technology and HVACR; a bachelors degree in Business and Communications; an MBA in Energy and Sustainability, and a EDD in Career and Technical Education. But despite his many degrees, Clark scoffs at "the college promise."

"We’ve got kids on Wall Street complaining about their student loans. Meanwhile, tech education was dismissed in favor of computer labs in middle school — they took woodshop out, and we lost another perspective on learning."

 Though the buzzword STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) is all the rage, Clark says the trend has nearly killed technical education. "Very few people know what HVACR is, it’s taken for granted. There are careers here in industrial and facility maintenance for people who are running the buildings. They’re working on heavy commercial refrigeration equipment, making sure the cooling is working. Every building needs people to take care of that stuff, and they get paid a good wage."

The problem, says Clark, began in the 1990s when schools had to make room for computer labs. "What do we tell people? Go to college and you’ll get a good job. We don’t say, ‘What do you want to do?’ We’ve gotten people college ready, not career ready."

"People" include female students, and COD’s HVACR program is seeking to attract more women by offering classes that start later, accommodating those who drop off children at daycare.

Clark has also instituted "Project Higher Ed," a smorgasbord curriculum where students work in seven tracks toward a technical degree by completing various certificates on their own timeline, allowing for flexibility in a changing workforce. 

"Recruiters recognize and respect everyone who comes out of the program," says Clark. "Students showcase their knowledge in our lab and people who walk in say that this should be in every college in America."