Tuesday 19 January 2010

Learning from down under down under

Studying automation at (very) long distance

Distance learning is one of the new ways of learning and IDC Technology have been in the forefront. Here is perhaps an extreme example in more senses than one. Extreme climate and extreme distance. So wrap up well and meet one of their students.

One of IDC Technologies’ engineering students, Steve Szekely, is based at the Australian Antarctic Division station on very remote Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean (No! I didn't know there was such a place either!). The base is a sub-Antarctic settlement of between 15 and 40 people located at the northern tip of the 34km by 5km island. The island is world heritage listed. We were curious about Steve’s life and work at the station and about how he managed his engineering study obligations, including joining the live interactive webcasts with students from other parts of the world.

Steve is studying the Advanced Diploma in Industrial Automation, which is offered by them via distance learning using the latest techniques.

What is your age, and do you have a partner/ family on the “mainland”?
I am 44 years old. My wife Julie and our three children are living in New Zealand.
What is your career background in brief?
My background is as a radio/communications technician mostly in the mining industry but also contracting as a technician in a variety of communications fields.

When did you decide that you wanted to do some Antarctic service?
I have always wanted to go to Antarctica since I was a boy. I grew up in Tasmania and was fascinated by the stories of adventurers and the extreme conditions they had to deal with.

What is your official job title, and what tasks do you have to do?
I am a Communications Technical Officer. I am one of two comms personnel, and between us we look after all the comms equipment on the island.

What are some of the unique engineering and technical challenges you have?
The things that can cause the most difficulties here are the ever present winds with salt spray, and the wild life. Wind chill can make it very difficult to do delicate wiring work outside. Zero degrees C may not seem very cold until you add 30 knots of wind. Once you take your gloves off you only have minutes before you lose feeling in your fingers and have to stop.

As far as the wildlife goes, Elephant seals can cause quite a bit of havoc when they decide to rub up or lean against your equipment enclosures. A large seal is quite capable of knocking down a 1.5m solid wooden fence.

Managing Study Obligations

Why did you choose this particular course (or what factors were part of the decision?)?
I have done quite a bit of work in the mining industry and I have always been interested in the automation and process control side of the operation. I thought that I would like to increase my knowledge in this area and diversify my skill set. The problem was that I could not attend classes in person. Everything had to be done remotely.

How long have you been doing it now?
I have been working on this course for about a year.

How many hours commitment each week is required for you?
On average I do about an hour and a half of study a night. Mostly reading text books and working on assignments.

Given your location, how do you manage with the online webcasts?
As the delegates are spread out all over the world, the question of setting a time for a webcast is difficult. I am given a choice of two or three different times during the day for each webcast and so I just find the one that is most convenient.

Others at the site must be studying too in down time, but what special challenges does the location bring to your study time?
I try to arrange field trips between study modules so that I can get away for up to a week at a time. If there are urgent repairs needed then that takes priority over studying and webcasts but due to the webcasts being recorded, I can catch up when I return to the station.

What’s been good, what’s been not so good with the course?
I have really enjoyed the work on PLC programming and control loop tuning as well as the chemical engineering module. It really helped me understand some of the processes that I had seen in the mining industry.

I love the flexibility of the study and the access to the lecturers. They have all been excellent at responding to email queries. I guess that there has not been any thing that I would call “not so good”. Some of the modules have been harder than others, but that just adds to the overall sense of achievement.

After your term is finished, how will the new qualification help?
When I return home I would like to pursue more opportunities in the process control field, in particular the oil and gas industry. I already have considerable experience in industrial data and communications and this qualification helps to bridge these skills into other fields.

And finally, what advice would you give someone who has a work commitment and is contemplating one of these courses?
To take on a commitment like this is a big task but if it wasn’t hard work then the qualification would not be worth anything. To help with this, the course has been designed with flexibility in mind. The varied webcast times and studying at your own pace can usually be juggled around work commitments without much, or any, interference on your work time. In my own case there was a period when I just could not attend webcasts or study but IDC worked with me to find a solution.

I have found the course to be very interesting and rewarding and I am very glad that I started.

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