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HVAC program teaches new skills

ABOVE: HVAC instructor Adam Carstensen with a piece of practice equipment in the new HVAC and plumbing lab at Fairmont High School.

FAIRMONT– Fairmont High School is currently teaching the first introductory course in its new HVAC program. The program utilizes the high school’s new vocational center and is one of the first programs of its kind in the region.

“Building from scratch is really hard, especially if no other high school is doing it,” said Alex Schmidt, co-principal at Fairmont Area High.

Throughout the creation of the program Fairmont Area Schools have consulted area professionals regarding what skills students should develop and how the new curriculum should be created.

The school’s new HVAC and plumbing lab contains multiple pieces of full-sized HVAC equipment for students to train on from across different areas of the HVAC industry. Almost all of the equipment students in the HVAC program will work with has been donated by Cress Refrigeration Inc. The business was founded by Fairmont graduates and its operators hope investing in the program will help address a shortage of skilled workers in the community.

“With the current HVAC technician shortage and future retirements … we feel it was really important to increase all avenues for getting students to look at HVAC as a good way to learn a living,” said Nick Cress, one of the owners of Cress Refrigeration.

In addition to consulting with local businesses, school employees also toured several HVAC programs at community colleges across Minnesota and Iowa.

Adam Carstensen is the school’s newest Career and Technical Education teacher and the instructor for the HVAC program.

“HVAC is a little bit of a different animal (compared to other trades). You’re trying to measure and work with stuff that you either can’t touch or (see). … You have to have a little bit more of that knowledge base to alter or impact these things,” said Carstensen.

During the hiring process the high school did not look for a teacher who was specifically familiar with HVAC systems. While Carstensen’s background is in welding, he will undergo additional HVAC training before he begins to teach higher level classes next year.

“It’s pretty challenging but I’m always up for a challenge. I feel like we’re making good progress this first semester,” said Carstensen.

HVAC technicians require certification and because HVAC instruction in high schools is rare, there is currently no way for the courses taught in Fairmont to transfer to another institution. High school leadership is interested in changing that in the future and has had some preliminary conversations with public community colleges regarding credit transfers.

Schmidt said a major role for high school vocational courses is to simply give students an opportunity to familiarize themselves with a particular career.

“A lot of what we do here is exposing (students) to different career options. If they enjoy this they can take the first two levels … that gives them a realistic view of what that career looks like. In high school you have that opportunity to explore without the cost factor and without the risk of failing a program and feeling defeated,” said Schmidt.

Because this is the first year of the HVAC program, the only class available is an introductory course that is primarily classroom-based. Fifty students have registered for the course, filling up both sections. The course focuses on general knowledge of HVAC

systems and how they’re maintained. In addition to its classroom component students also learn basic metalworking techniques.

Additional courses are being developed by the school and will be introduced as students progress through the program. These will include more specialized instruction regarding HVAC systems, more complex work with the equipment in the school’s HVAC and plumbing lab and a possible work experience with local HVAC technicians.

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