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GACTC in the Altoona Mirror : Centered on Building Careers

Hands-on training key ingredient for vocational school

By Michael Boytim

On a snowy Friday in March, when most of her classmates at Altoona were enjoying a day off from school due to an in-service day, Aleah Emlet came early to her electro-mechanical engineering technology class at the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center.

She began working on some equipment before the class even started.

Emlet is in her fourth year of the program, and it is part of what she considers her early working career, not just school.

“When I was in eighth-grade, I was really into virtual reality and the thought of augmented reality,” said Emlet, an 18-year-old Altoona student who hopes to make her mark in the engineering field. “While I was researching it, I found that electrical engineering was a main part of it. I wanted to start my early career in that field.

“I went on a tour of the CTC and noticed they had an electronics technology program, and I went in and was so amazed by everything they were doing in class. It really fit the bill for me.

“I’m a multi-tasking person. I love to get my hands involved in everything. Really it’s a program for kinesthetic learners like me.”

Students like Emlet, who prefer to learn with experiences and hands-on work, tend to find their place at the GACTC.

“The way the class is set up, students are here for half of a day either in the morning or afternoon,” said Brian Kelley, the teacher of the electro-mechanical engineering technology program, said. “Part of that session, we have theory. They learn about the intricacies of the circuits or parts, but the other two-thirds of the day, they are actually doing it. They are building labs and circuits that teach them how the theory is implemented.”

Often students pick up on some of the things their parents are interested in and want to learn more about how to be better prepared to enter the field of their choice.


Mirror photo by Michael Boytim Kayden Tremmel (front) and Aleah Emlet work on a project in class at the Greater Altoona Caree

Mirror photo by Michael Boytim Kayden Tremmel (front) and Aleah Emlet work on a project in class at the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center. Emlet is pointing out a suggestion.



“My dad is an IT director for Lighthouse Medical, and he works with electronics a lot,”Kayden Tremmel, a 15-year-old Altoona student in the class, said. “He did things from fixing computers to modding console games for gaming systems in his free time, and that got me into it. Seeing it here and being a part of it is so much more than you get out of the tour.”

Tremmel said, “The tour gives you a glimpse, but this is so much more than you think it is.”

Tremmel, like many students, wasn’t very interested about learning high-level algebra in a conventional classroom, but when he saw its use in something he was working on in Kelley’s class, it sparked an interest.

“It’s nice to know that your algebra is not actually useless,” said Tremmel, who hopes to work on planes in the future. “The things we’ve done here are linear equations basically. That involves algebra, and that’s some of the most advanced stuff I’ve learned so far.”

Hidden gem

Eight different schools feed in students to the GACTC, including all of Blair County’s schools and Glendale.

Still, Kelley believes many more people and their children could benefit from the school’s programs.

“This school to me is a hidden gem,” Kelley said. “There a lot of people that live in Blair County that don’t even know we’re here let alone what goes on. We have so many programs, and they all have the same goal. That’s to get the student ready for work.

“Our student organization, SkillsUSA, they have a different theme every year, and this year’s theme is ‘job ready, day one,’ and that really does sum it up. When a kid graduates from this program, the intention is that they can walk out of the door and get a job.”

Those jobs include ones in the military and locally but certainly aren’t limited to that.

“This my 14th year, and a lot of my students come back and visit me and tell me how they’re doing,” Kelley said. “A had a couple students that got top-secret clearance who are working with the FBI. Another student is working on the electronics for nuclear submarines.”

The electro-mechanical engineering technology class is just one of the many programs the school offers.

“We have 27 different secondary programs,” GACTC Executive Director Donna Miller said. “We have eight full-time post-secondary programs. We’re not only a secondary, or high school, but we’re also a post-secondary institution, which a lot of people don’t realize.

“We give students a skill set that they can go out and earn a living for the rest of their lives.”

Miller believes having teachers like Kelley, who really enjoys working with the kids and seeing their eyes light up when they figure out a problem while working on a lab, are important to the students.

“Our teachers aren’t only teachers, but they are mentors,” Miller said. “They have students half a day, two and a half hours every day morning or afternoon, and they become mentors. Our young people today need a mentor in their lives, and we can provide that.”

Kelley’s class has changed over the years, but the concentration has always been putting his students in the best situation to find a job.

“We’re pretty heavily weighted on the electronic side of it,” Kelley said. “The past few years, we’ve been adding more and more of the mechanical side of it. We have trainers that help students understand how robotics work and work on programming on computers.

“There’s less people working with what’s being built at a manufacturing plant and more robotics working with it. These students are taking the jobs of designing the robot and designing the automation process and installing and fixing it.”

Success story

Matthew Lightner was just a 15-year-old kid who liked fixing VCRs and TVs in his spare time when he walked into the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center for the first time about 25 years ago.

Now he’s the owner of his own business, Lightner Electronics, and of local radio station WTRN. He credits a lot of his success to the school.

“The electronics program had a lot of theory. It was practical theory,” Lightner said. “You would learn something and then go build a lab and test what you learned so you could understand what you learned, and you got to see it in real life.

“I really enjoyed that about the class. You got the theory, and you could see how it worked.”

Miller said she’s run into plenty of students like Lightner.

“There’s all different ways to learn,” Miller said. “Certainly, a lot of students who come here, like hands-on learning. They like to learn with their hands. The book plus hands-on equals learning. There’s a lot of theory, but there’s definitely a lot of hands-on learning.”

Lightner Electronics has changed some over the years, but the knowledge of working through problems and coming up with a solution manually Lightner gained at the GACTC has helped him adjust.

“At first, we primarily worked with broadcast-related businesses,” Lightner said. “Radio stations would consolidate, and we would build studios for them. I did a lot of traveling through the country building radio studios and doing maintenance.

“Now we have branched off into audio visual stuff. I got sick of the travel and living out of suitcase. We do work for Sheetz, Value Drug and New Pig among others doing electronics, digital signage, security conference rooms and cameras. We do still do some broadcast work.”

Lightner’s company has serviced many local companies since he’s cut back on travel such as DelGrosso’s Park where he installed a new sound system with better quality announcements and a video camera system.

“We work with anything dealing with audio and video, camera systems, security systems, card access for doors, anything technology-related for businesses we do,” Lightner said. “Paging systems, video conferencing, you name it. Sheetz uses us for video conferencing. Before they had to fly to North Carolina for meetings, but now they are connected instantly.

“We have even put in church sound systems for places like the First Church of Christ by Penn State Altoona campus. We put in video system remote control cameras, and they now have streaming church services.”

Lightner is proud the program that helped fuel his love for electronics is still helping kids like Emlet and Tremmel follow their dreams today.

“I definitely do give the school credit,” Lightner said. “I think they provided building blocks. Before I went there, I was just repairing things in electronics. Going to vo-tech showed me how to apply theory I learned and helped me design it. I credit them for that and also through their co-op program I ended up with radio and starting my business.”


Originally published in the Altoona Mirror.

Michael Boytim