After a school year that challenged both students and teachers with virtual and blended learning, more than 100 Merrillville High School students requested welding classes during the 2021-22 school year, nearly double that of previous years for the school’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program.

Students were ready to get back to hands-on learning, and the recently completed classroom renovation is now primed to accommodate the increasing number of students.

The $79,000 construction project took place over the last several months, adding student workstations, improvements to shop ventilation, electrical, five new multi-function machines and fume extractors. A Perkins Grant along with funding awarded by the Hobart Redevelopment Commission covered approximately $45,000 worth of equipment upgrades.

“As a district, we are committed to improving the welding lab for the students,” said Bob Phelps, director of technology and CTE. “We increased our capacity to serve our students by removing outdated equipment and adding five more welding bays with new multi-process welders. The students now train in a cleaner, safer lab that meets our post-secondary and industry partners’ expectations.”

Historically, the introductory class of 12 students required them to take turns welding, but that process made it difficult to satisfy the hands-on requirements for dual credit or the Department of Education curriculum, according to Joe Sokol, MHS welding educator.

“With the expansion of the welding facilities, all of the students can have access to a machine for their entire class period,” he said. “Since we offer four welding classes a day, we will be able to accommodate 48 students per trimester.”

The Welding II class that maxed out at seven students can now accommodate 12 students.

The MHS welding program will increase dual credit participation during this school year, which means students will not only earn credit toward their high school diploma, but will also earn credit toward college or trade school, giving them a jumpstart on their future education. In addition, the program will increase the number of welder certifications issued to students.

“We are setting the groundwork to begin implementing the Next Level Programs of Study (NLPS) curriculum in the fall of 2022,” Sokol said.

He said those requirements will focus on a greater concentration within the CTE Pathways.

“That means transitioning from Welding I and Welding II into specific areas of knowledge,” he said. “After completing the Principles of Welding course, students will move into concentrators: Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW) and Gas Arc Welding (GMAW & FCAW).

“Students will gain a deeper understanding of specific welding processes,” he continued. “They will be able to pursue more welding qualifications, which will increase their employability and help build a professional resume of skills.”

He added that as the MHS program continues to grow, so do the relationships it builds with manufacturers and suppliers in Northwest Indiana who seek skilled employees.

“On any given day you can walk in and see Merrillville students of all skill levels on their way to becoming certified welders while still in high school,” Phelps said. “By providing those students with great instruction and professional equipment, we are setting them up for success.”

Sokol began his third year at Merrillville High School this fall. MHS CTE Assistant Principal Mike Knocke credits the educator for the success of the program.

“Mr. Sokol is an enthusiastic teacher who cares deeply about his program and his students,” Knocke said. “He is constantly looking for innovative ways to build up student engagement and is always willing to come in to help our students.

“When you get a teacher that offers the unique energy that Mr. Sokol comes with, combined with a program in which students get large amounts of hands-on experience, students are going to gravitate to that program,” he added.

Sokol even worked over the summer to help his students increase their skills and earn welding certifications.

The teacher combined his love for education and technical crafts into a welding education career at MHS. After 14 years as a mathematics teacher, he changed careers.

“I pursued a new career in structural steel fabrication,” Sokol said. “I served as a quality control/quality assurance manager, where I earned credentials as a Certified Welding Inspector and Certified Welding Educator.

“I also acquired welding qualifications and certifications in specific processes and positions,” he added.

After several years in the QA/QC role, he was intrigued by an opening at Merrillville High School.

“The more I thought about coming back to the profession in a new capacity, the more excited I was at the opportunity,” he said. “I am looking forward to building an amazing program for our students.”

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