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Solon students explore careers at new Kirkwood center

44 SHS juniors and seniors have attended classes at recently-opened regional site
Jon Weih (right), director of the Kirkwood Regional Center at the University of Iowa, shows Solon school board members Adam Haluska and Rick Jedlicka equipment in the Advanced Manufacturing lab. (photo by Nora Heaton)

CORALVILLE– Whether looking to work in a mechanic’s shop, an operating room or a courthouse, Solon students can find plenty of avenues to explore.
Exploring these options while still in high school will now earn them college credit, too. The Kirkwood Regional Center at the University of Iowa, which opened this school this year, offers high school academy programs that allow students to attend college-level courses at no cost to their families. Students attending programs in the 17 career academies can earn a professional certificate to help secure a position in the workforce after graduating, or earn transfer credits toward a post-secondary degree.
The education at the center is top-notch, and its benefits are limitless, said Kirkwood Regional Center Director Jon Weih. “We’re really having students do this to explore what careers look like ahead of time. We want them to learn what it’s going to take for them to move into a career, whether it’s as an engineer or a CNA,” said Weih.
Solon Community School District’s Board of Directors toured the five-story, 101,000 square-foot building during its Nov. 9 meeting. The center, which cost $32 million to build, is a partnership between Kirkwood Community College, Grant Wood Area Education Agency and the University of Iowa. The facility opened in August at the University of Iowa Research Park campus on Oakdale Blvd in Coralville. Since the center’s fall opening, it has enrolled over 700 high school students from Johnson County, who can earn up to 12 college credit hours. The center subsidizes any cost incurred by area districts, and students and their families pay no tuition. The high school academies offer classes in disciplines ranging from manufacturing to psychology, pharmacology to criminal justice, and health care to computer programming.
The most popular program among Solon students is the Advanced Manufacturing/Engineering Technology Academy, where students earn credits toward welding, metalwork and machining certificates. About one quarter of Solon High School’s 44 enrolled students attend that academy, said Solon Community School District Superintendent Davis Eidahl.
In the advanced manufacturing lab, students have supervised, direct access to hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of state-of-the-art equipment. Students can use virtual welders, developing the muscle memory involved with making welds on different kinds of metal, then can move on to working with actual welders. Students learn to use band saws, Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines and plasma cutters. Students practicing on the lab’s plasma torch can practice computer programming skills on a laptop while directing the torch to cut, Weih said.
Students in the Toyota-certified automotive shop get practical experience by performing repairs and maintenance on clients’ cars, and can also work through e-modules that teach them the math behind the technology they’re using.
Similar to Advanced Manufacturing’s virtual welder, this lab has a virtual painter to give students realistic practice.
“It even fights back a little bit, like you’re spraying,” Weih said, demonstrating. “As a student, I can do this as many times as I need to, in order to get the technique down.”
Part of the fun of attending classes at Kirkwood Regional Center is meeting students from throughout the county, Weih said. Along with Solon, the high school academies draw students from districts such as Clear Creek Amana, College Community, Iowa City, Regina Catholic, Tipton, West Branch and West Liberty.
“It’s kind of fun to watch everybody walk in with their school colors,” Weih said. “They don’t really realize they’re all from different schools. They’re classmates when they’re out here.”