Eastern Kentucky Students Head Underground - In Theory

BELFRY, Ky. (AP) - Coal mining is eastern Kentucky's top industry and though many people hear about the rigors that go along with mining, those who are not in the business rarely get a taste of what it's really like to work underground.

That will change for more than 200 students attending the Belfry Area Technology Center, who will get a chance to learn about mining by using simulator programs courtesy of the Success Xpress.

The Success Xpress is a mobile training facility built into a 53-foot truck trailer that will be stationed at the Belfry center through late February. Students from both Belfry and Pike County Central high schools will have access to high-quality training in key coal mining skills by using the industry's most advanced technology. The Success Xpress features a state-of-the art classroom outfitted with a three-dimensional computerized mining simulator and a hands-on lab area featuring electrical training panels exactly like those found on actual mining equipment. It is owned and operated by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program Inc., a nonprofit agency that administers workforce development programs in eastern Kentucky.

David Ruth, coal mining services coordinator with EXCEP, said the purpose of the Success Xpress is to integrate coal mining simulation into the curriculum of eastern Kentucky technology centers. Ruth said that besides Belfry, the facility has been to Cumberland, Hazard, Isom and Inez and will travel all over Kentucky's 23 easternmost counties.

Robin May, electrical instructor at the Belfry center, said that most students will receive the training for one to two hours each time they visit the Xpress, while others may receive three, depending on how many hours of class they have at the technical center. All students receiving instruction at the school may take part in the simulation training.

"I think this is a really good idea," May said. "It should have been done a long time ago. It may have saved at least one life."

The simulator in the Success Xpress classroom includes a virtual reality headset and handheld control panel. A student can wear the headset and experience the sights and sounds of operating a continuous mining machine to cut coal from the walls of an underground mine. Other students in the class can watch the operator's progress on a 40-inch flat-screen display.

Distance-learning technology aboard the Success Xpress allows mining courses to be taught by specially qualified instructors at remote locations and transmitted to students in the mobile classroom. Remote-controlled cameras in the mobile unit allow the class to interact with the remote instructor in real time. Any sessions taught by instructors, whether on board the Success Xpress or from a remote location, can be digitally recorded, saved and replayed on demand.

The Success Xpress classroom also includes wireless connectivity that provides Internet access at eight computer work stations. Additionally, should the need arise, the communications equipment in the Success Xpress would allow it to function as a mobile command center in the case of a mine accident or emergency.

"I think it's very neat," said Danny Branham, a Belfry High School junior. "It's good to have. It teaches you what you will be doing when you get out of school."

Though Branham does not plan to enter the mining industry after high school, he said he is glad to have the training and that hands-on work is "much better than sitting in a class reading a book."

Center Principal Annette Ward said that students get high school credit for their vocational-technical classes and also receive certificates for programs they complete. She added that the center already has a coal academy in which students learn the ins and outs of the mining industry and students can receive dual credit for both high school and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System when completing the program.

Ward is excited to have the Xpress at Belfry.

"I saw this set up at the Martin County Coal Fair, and I asked if they could bring it to our school," Ward said. "I think it is exciting. It's awesome."

Ward said the center has two simulators on order - one for operating a shuttle car and the other for a continuous miner. Once the simulators arrive, students participating in the coal academy will be able to get more hands-on training.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved


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