FORT SMITH — A University of Arkansas-Fort Smith program has a new home to offer college-level courses to area high school students.
The Peak Innovation Center welcomed its first students Monday at 5900 Painter Lane.
The center is a collaboration between the university and the Fort Smith School District. It serves approximately 280 students from 22 school districts in Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Scott, and Sebastian counties through the university’s Western Arkansas Technical Center program.
It is the last of the school district’s Vision 2023 plan projects to be completed, which were funded by a $5.558 million property tax increase approved by voters in May 2018, which raised approximately $121 million before its expiration.
Gary Udouj, director of career education and district innovation for the school district, said the center is a grassroots effort among area schools, businesses and industries to fill skills gaps. and keep students working in the river valley after graduation. He said it is an opportunity both for students who want to enter the workforce directly after graduation and for those who want to receive college credit before entering higher education.
Students can attend Peak at no cost to them, Udouj said. The district set aside $13.7 million on the mileage increase and held a fundraiser for the rest, he said.
“The momentum has really grown since the building was donated to local and national organizations who gave us grants and a lot of support. It was the Hutcheson shoe factory, and it was a warehouse which the Hutcheson family generously donated, with approximately 17 acres.”
Anita Brackin, vice president of workforce development at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said there is a national shortage of workers for several reasons, including an aging workforce and an evolving skill set. She said the Peak Innovation Center is a tool other communities don’t have and allows the chamber to incentivize businesses to relocate or expand to the Fort Smith area to recruit students who already have the training. that businesses need.
“We have a great workforce. If you talk to these companies, they have great people. But they’re all working,” Brackin said.
“So if we have a business looking to set up shop here that has a number of jobs to fill, we need to be able to show them what we are doing to grow our future workforce. That’s why having something like the Peak Innovation Center is now one of our milestones,” she said.
The center offers courses in automation and robotics, computer integrated machining, electronics technology and industrial maintenance, emergency medical responders, medical assistants, network engineering and aerial systems without pilot.
Students enrolled in Automotive Technology, Computer Aided Drafting and Welding will remain on campus. The Certified Practical Nurse and Licensed Practical Nurse programs will wrap up the spring semester at the university, but will be offered at Peak this fall.
Garry Cude, an electronic technology and unmanned aerial systems instructor at Peak and the university, said Peak courses work by having students use online modules to learn the basic knowledge of aircraft equipment. this course before
“And we didn’t come cheap on equipment,” he said. “There are actually devices here that are relevant. It’s all industry standard equipment. It’s portable, so when it comes to the job site, the learning curve is much less steep. They already know what they’re doing.”
Emma Smith, a junior from Southside High School, said she was excited about the new technology provided at Peak compared to the courses she was taking at university. She said she always wanted to be an engineer and taking courses through Peak allows her to narrow down the type of engineering she wants to study in college.
“I thought at first I wanted to drive robots and do all that stuff – and that’s really cool – but I found that I liked working on circuit boards more,” she said. “It looks really awesome on the apps but it opened my eyes to different colleges like UAFS and how awesome their engineering program is.”
Udouj said Peak classes have morning and afternoon sessions for students to attend before or after their basic classes at their high schools. He said the school district starts in middle school by having students take career connection courses and aptitude tests to see what kind of careers they are interested in and qualified for.
“We want all of our students to graduate with a skill set and a plan. The sooner we can start this, the more relevant it will be for the student and the more opportunities it will provide,” he said.
“Students will have the opportunity to delve deeper into the areas that interest them, and if we do it right, they can graduate with plenty of college hours under their belts. Eventually, we would like them to get an associate degree if possible.This is one of our longer term goals.