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Virginia Community College Student Wins National Scholarship To Operate Robots

Adam Toler operates a small robot inside one of the classrooms at New River Community College. Toler is about to graduate with an associate degree. He studied in the instrumentation and control automation technology program and plans to return in the fall to complete two more associate degrees.

Adam Toler, 20, taps buttons on a control panel to train a small yellow robot approximately the size of a kitten. The arm of the robot comes to life.

“I get to work with robots and get them to do cool things,” Toler, who’s about to graduate with an associates degree, said. “I get to work with anything that’s automated and make it work.”

Toler is inside one of the instrumentation and automation classrooms at New River Community College in Pulaski County.

Toler was the only Virginia college student to receive a national scholarship and be named a New Century Workforce Scholar. It is the only national award of its kind designed exclusively for students pursuing an associate’s degree and entering the workforce.

Some people are put off by the stigma of attending community college rather than a four-year university.

But Toler didn’t see it that way. In high school he considered becoming a CPA, but changed his mind. “Working at a desk all day doing math, even though I love math, would not have been good for me,” Toler said.

He realized he’s a better learner if he can do something hands-on. And he loves working with robots, programming them and fixing them.

“I think what we do is cool. I’ll finish something sometime and I’m like, I didn’t even know this existed and this is awesome.”

Most of the equipment they practice with at the college look like equipment at actual Virginia companies. Their classes are designed to mimic real workplaces, said Toler’s professor, Montie Fleshman.

“We’ll go to a company, spend a day with them,” Fleshman said. “See what kinds of instruments they’re using, what kind of calibrators they’re using, what kind of meters they’re using. See what our students are missing, what were the holes.”

Fleshman said he likes to give students a chance to try, and fail. Even though this does mean a lot of equipment gets broken.

“And say, ok you play with it, expecting some things to be hooked up wrong and blown up,” ,” Fleshman said.

Fleshman clarifies that no students have actually been seriously injured during these missteps. “I would rather them do that here, in a controlled atmosphere, rather than them get 600 volts at work and die,” Fleshman said.

Roxy Todd / Radio IQ


Toler points to an orange robot in another classroom, which is designed to grab and move objects ranging from car parts to medical equipment. There are two street lights against the wall. They also practiced programming them in their automation lesson.

Many analysts predict that firms will dramatically increase their usage of automation during the next decade. This might result in millions of jobs being replaced by robots.

Toler expressed conflicting emotions regarding the situation. However, he points out that there are several abilities, such as creative thinking and problem solving, that cannot be replaced by automation.

“Who is going to fix the robots?” Toler said. “No matter how well we design them, there will always be wear and tear on them. So you need people to fix them. You need people to maintain them. You need people to design them and engineers.”

Toler said he thinks more people should consider learning hands-on skills, particularly anyone in high school or in between careers who’s struggling to figure out what they want to do.

“If you can find a trade that you enjoy, whether it’s carpentry, anything, become an apprentice in it so you’re working with your hands,” Toler said. “And that’s how you learn. It really is something that I think is dying in our society.”

This summer, Toler is headed to work at a paper-mill in Richmond. In the fall, he plans to return to community college to get two more associates degrees in electrical engineering.


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