A John Deere Publication
student using simulator to virtually weld

A student from St. Charles High School in southeast Minnesota learns to weld on a virtual simulator. It gives real-time feedback through numerous sensors but puts out no heat and uses no physical materials for each weld.

Agriculture, Education   November 01, 2022

Lighting a Virtual Spark


High school students learn about trade careers through simulators.

"I don't need to take a foreign language to get into college. I'm not going to college," Michael Stangler, of St. Charles, Minn., said to his parents and guidance counselor as a freshman.

What does this high school student seem destined for? If you thought to yourself, 'sounds like he already knows what he wants to do and how to do it,' you would be correct.

Stangler has known he wants to be a welder for a while and knows he does not need a four-year university degree (nor the prerequisite classes) to do that.

That is not the norm for his peers who also may be best suited for something other than the college track. But unlike Michael, many students with the potential for successful skilled trade careers haven't even been exposed to them or may view them with a negative stigma.

Sparking an idea. A non-profit based in New Ulm, Minn., is trying to change this and spark a big idea, quite literally, in high school students. Mary Ann Christensen and Rebecca Fliszar founded Big Ideas, Inc., after similar experiences when their children were in high school.

"Despite having family members in the trades, their kids didn't really think trades were even an option when graduating high school, so the two moms thought about how they could encourage people to see the breadth of options," says Joe Schotzko, an instructor for the organization.

What started as long-form seminars in 2017 pivoted into a retrofitted semi-trailer brought to schools and events around the state. The trailer is full of simulators so students can get a hands-on feel for the techniques needed and many opportunities available in the skilled trades before they get dirty in the workshop. Students rotate through each augmented reality station—welding, spray painting, and excavating—and then also have the chance to pick from 23 other simulations using a standard virtual reality headset and controllers.

Above. A classmate of Michael's is practicing his new excavating skills inside the trailer. Michael and Jana Stangler helped bring the Big Ideas trailer to their area so other students could learn about careers in skilled trades including welding, spray painting and excavating.


Inside the trailer. Schotzko and the other instructors who also work in the various trades feel each time they welcome a new set of students into the trailer is another opportunity to let students in on a well-kept secret. These jobs are good and in demand.

"It's fun to compare the skills needed to be a good painter to those on a basketball court or even the prom dance floor. Sometimes I can also make a connection that crosses over from a well perceived trade to a lesser one, such as welders and nurses both need steady hands to make clean, precise movements, but welders don't have to deal with blood! Most students at least come out of the trailer thinking these jobs can be fun and interesting," says Schotzko, acknowledging their goal is to make students more aware of the possibilities.

Jana Stangler, Michael's mom, worked with her employer, Compeer Financial (a Farm Credit cooperative serving parts of the Upper Midwest), to bring the Big Ideas trailer to her son's school.

"Michael knows he wants to weld, but because of others' reaction I wanted to provide this exposure to all the students. I think it's important for kids to understand all their options. We all rely on people in the trade industries and need younger people to be interested in taking over as older generations retire," she says.

More than 65 students went through the trailer at St. Charles High School, and nearly everyone came out saying it was a great experience, exceeding Jana's goal to create awareness and appreciation for the trades. ‡

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