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New Bedford Students Get VR Lesson on Wind Turbines

The virtual reality company Vinci VR gave vocational students a simulation of what it’s like to work on an offshore wind turbine, as the state’s clean-energy projects anticipate needing hundreds or thousands of workers.

offshore wind turbine
(TNS) — With jobs in the Southcoast offshore wind industry growing, getting people interested in that career path is the next step.

And there’s no better place to start than with students.

“I think that wind, right now for kids, is still kind of a unicorn,” said New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High Principal Warley Williams. “We know what it is, but we haven’t really been totally exposed to it.”

On Tuesday, Vinci VR introduced students to a new virtual-reality training program used to teach offshore wind workers what it’s like to be up on a turbine.

“Getting kids out into the industry, getting them to see it, feel it, climb, see the mechanisms and what they can do with it. That’s going to make a difference with kids understanding it and wanting to be a part of it,” Williams said.

In attendance was Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, who was visiting in honor of STEM Week by highlighting Voc-Tech’s marine tech training and witnessing the virtual reality program. “It’s STEM every day here,” Polito said. “And it should be standard every day, everywhere, no matter what.”

STEM is an acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. STEM-education has been a priority in school to get students more interesting in STEM-related jobs.

According to Polito, STEM jobs are growing at a rate of 7.5 percent versus the 3-percent growth for other non-STEM-related jobs. She added that STEM jobs pay around $30,000 more than non-STEM related employment.

“We need to stimulate interest among young people to start to develop the skills needed in this industry sector,” Polito said.

“It’s a great opportunity to look at what offshore wind looks like in the real world,” added Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides. “Which is something that a lot of students, and us, don’t have the opportunity to do.”

Located 15 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Vineyard Wind 1 is positioned to become the first large-scale offshore wind farm in the United States by 2023, according to Vineyard Wind.

According to Craig Gilvarg, the director of communications for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, New Bedford will have thousands of jobs in the offshore wind industry in the coming years.

“We’re building somewhere between 15 to 25 gigawatts projects over the next 30 years to help meet our clean energy and climate goals. Hundreds, thousands of jobs will be created that could be available to students in a vocational program,” Gilvarg said.

Polito put on a VR headset and experienced the training first hand. She was asked to perform tasks holding hydraulic equipment, tightening loose bolts and interpreting data.

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” Polito said, laughing.

“When people first used VR for the first time, they like fumble around the controls, like knowing which buttons to press,” Eagle Wu, CEO of Vinci VR said. “But the Lieutenant Governor picked it up really, really fast. So I was pleasantly surprised.”

Wu, 24, started making VR games in his college dorm until he was hired by a part-time student who worked in an Army research lab to create a VR training program. Soon after, he worked with the Air Force. In 2020, Siemens Gamesa partnered with Vinci VR to create the offshore wind training program.

VR training is becoming a common tool in emergency management, police and fire rescue and other maintenance jobs. In 2019, Walmart began using virtual reality programs to train its managers in real-life situations such as taking them on a store tour or dealing with angry shoppers.

The offshore wind VR program is used to help hire new technicians, according to Cynthia Brown, Siemens Gamesa’s head of technical training. Brown says workers participate in a three-week hiring program that consists of the technical training with the VR program as well as a safety component.

“We do have routine maintenance that’s done maybe once a year, twice a year, depending on what the component is,” Brown said about workers being on a physical turbine. “But we do a lot of remote monitoring that enables a remote start.”

“To be able to train individuals in a virtual setting is profound,” said Polito after participating in the training program for a few minutes. “This is amazing technology. State-of-the-art.

“This is a forever task, you’re going to need to have people skilled, and have the willingness to be part of servicing and maintaining these turbines for many, many, many years to come,” Polito added.

Students and guests also had a chance to try the VR training. Dana Reveiro from Vineyard Wind said that it almost felt real. “I feel like I’m in this and it’s unnerving to look over the edge. I’m not the best with heights, to be 500 feet... it is daunting,” she said.

“This is definitely not for the faint of heart.”

One student said there was a distinct sensation one could fall off the edge and get hurt. Another student, sophomore Luc Porto, said the whole experience was interesting and that he didn’t know much about the offshore wind industry.

“I might look into it when I get home,” Porto said.

Voc doesn’t offer specific classes geared toward wind, but it has workshops that relate to different sectors such as electrical engineering or marine studies. “We are pivoting to wind,” Williams said.

“In certain curricular moments we can focus in on the wind, but I think in years to come we’re going to double down on the focus of wind.”

Williams said the students appreciated a visit from Polito, who also toured the science wing and briefly spoke with students one-on-one. “Seeing them as a potential source of being productive of all of the work coming... I think the kids are always happy to see that.

“They feel like they have promise in the future in New Bedford.”

©2021 The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.