Modernizing HVAC-R Education at Mercer County: Blending Tradition with Technology

Trevor Geisz is an award-winning HVAC-R instructor at Mercer County Technical Schools in Trenton, New Jersey. His innovative approach to education, fueled by cutting-edge technology, has transformed how his 11th—and 12th-grade students prepare for successful careers in the field.

A Natural Fit: Transitioning to HVAC-R Education at Mercer County

My journey to becoming an HVAC-R educator took a winding road. From college to the military, sales, and then trade school, I eventually landed in the HVAC-R industry. It was there that I discovered a passion for hands-on jobs and teaching. 

Guiding new hires through the ins and outs of HVAC-R was a highlight of my time in the field, so when the opportunity to teach HVAC-R at Mercer County came up, it felt like a natural fit. Drawing on my varied business experiences, I aimed to bring a global approach to our program— one that was practical, modern, engaging, and industry-validated so I could effectively prepare students for successful trade careers.

Discovering Interplay: A Game-Changer for HVAC-R Education

I once had a million-dollar idea to create an HVAC-R training video game. But after some brief Googling, I was amazed to discover that Interplay had already beaten me to the punch. 

This realization caused a shift in my teaching methodologies, motivating me to reimagine Mercer’s two-year HVAC-R program for high school juniors and seniors. Interplay allows students to learn at their own pace, engage in interactive simulations, and apply what they’ve learned in a virtual setting before moving to the shop floor. The platform embodied the modern, effective approach to HVAC-R education I had envisioned, supporting me as I ushered in a new era of innovation and engagement in the classroom.

The Structure of Our HVAC-R Program: A Day in the Life of a Student

Our HVAC-R program at Mercer County Technical Schools is designed to give students a comprehensive education that blends theory with hands-on experience. In the first year, Juniors focus on learning the fundamentals of HVAC-R systems. They become OSHA 10 certified and start working on residential and commercial equipment in our expansive shop. 

Juniors spend their first year honing their installation skills, working in groups on central air conditioning systems. They follow step-by-step projects that build on each other, starting with copper tubing and electrical projects, moving on to installing complete central air conditioning and heating systems, and then evaluating, troubleshooting, and repairing the systems they installed.

This hands-on approach is complemented by Interplay’s simulations, which provide a lab preview and practice of each task in a risk-free environment.

Seniors delve into more advanced topics such as heat pumps, sheet metal work, gas piping, hydronics, and refrigeration. Their curriculum includes extensive preparation for the EPA 608 certification, using the official study guide bolstered by Interplay’s video courses and practice tests.

The second year also offers the option to gain field experience through the Work-Based Learning (WBL) program, where students can work in the field while completing their coursework. This combination of classroom learning, hands-on practice, and real-world experience ensures our students are well-prepared for their careers in the HVAC-R industry.

Enhancing Student Learning

One of the biggest challenges in teaching HVAC-R is helping students overcome their fear of making mistakes. No matter how often I assure them that errors are part of the learning process, there’s still a significant hesitation. Interplay addresses this by allowing students to practice in a virtual environment where mistakes have no real-world consequences. This boosts their confidence and helps them learn more effectively.

Integrating virtual reality into our program has been a game-changer. While simulations can’t entirely replace hands-on work, they sure do make for a smooth transition. Why would we not use VR when it lets you troubleshoot systems like the real deal? 

Recently, we’ve streamlined things with a centralized setup using tablets and wireless VR headsets. Students can dive into Interplay without being tethered to laptops or dealing with tangled cords. They’re free to roam, whether in the classroom or the shop. And since we’ve introduced Interplay, the information sticks with them more readily. 

Our Secret Sauce: The Craft Advisory Panel

One key element of our program’s success is our Craft Advisory Panel. The panel is made up of a group of dedicated HVAC-R industry professionals, school administrators, support staff, parents, and students who provide invaluable insights and support. 

We meet twice a year to discuss the latest industry trends, gather feedback on our curriculum, and identify market needs. This collaboration ensures that our program remains relevant and up-to-date, equipping students with the skills that employers are looking for. 

Their involvement bridges the gap between education and industry, creating a robust support network that benefits our program and the future HVAC-R workforce. And wouldn’t you know, some panel members have even mentioned seeing virtual reality software used by training facilities in the industry!

Streamlining Instruction and Improving Outcomes

From an instructional perspective, Interplay has significantly streamlined my teaching process. The platform allows students to work independently, freeing me to provide targeted support where needed. I can monitor their progress through detailed reports, which helps me identify areas where they might struggle and offer additional assistance.

Interplay’s grading system is another major benefit. It saves me time on assessments, allowing me to focus more on enhancing the program and engaging with students. The ability to track each student’s progress and performance means I can offer more personalized feedback, improving their learning experience. 

Success Stories: Seeing the Impact

One of our standout graduate students, Manuel Abzun, exemplifies our program’s success and Interplay’s impact. Manny excelled both in the classroom and field, winning the Local SkillsUSA Competition, the Malco Tools Head of Class Award, and earning his EPA 608 Universal Certification. He also began working with a local HVAC-R company through the Work-Based Learning program during his Senior year of high school and frequently used Interplay to review concepts and practice simulations, significantly enhancing his learning experience.

Manny’s dedication and hard work have earned him praise from his employer, and he has continued to excel in the field earning him an offer for continued full-time employment upon graduation! His story is a testament to the effectiveness of combining traditional hands-on training with innovative digital tools like Interplay.

Pre-Apprenticeships – The Future of HVAC-R Education

As we continue to develop our program, I’m excited about the possibilities that Interplay will bring. We’re currently finalizing a Department of Labor-approved pre-apprenticeship program that incorporates Interplay’s hours as a key component, generating even more value for our program.

Integrating Interplay into our HVAC-R program has transformed how I teach and how my students learn. It provides a dynamic, interactive learning environment that enhances understanding, boosts confidence, and improves retention.

While virtual simulations can’t entirely replace physical work, they serve as an excellent scaffold, bridging the gap between classroom learning and real-world application. As we continue to innovate, I am confident that our students will be better prepared for successful careers in the HVAC-R industry.

 

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