Immersion Students Get Hands Dirty in Learning with Visit to Coal Mine

Posted: November 21, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

When associate professor Nada Dabbagh says immersion, she really means immersion—even if that means that her College of Education and Human Development students find themselves 750 feet below the earth.

It took an underground coal mining visit in the pitch dark for the students’ coursework to finally be illuminated. Working in partnership with the Department of Labor, students in Dabbagh’s immersion team plunged down deep into the Cumberland Mine in Waynesburg, Pa., to get some gritty, dusty knowledge of coal mining work.

This field trip was intended to help them in the design and development of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) underground coal mine supervisory training project they were assigned as part of the Instructional Technology Program at Mason. The students are working on their Master’s in Instructional Design and Development and using real-world projects to learn and develop skills in the field.

The immersion team prepares for their hike 750 ft. underground.
Photo courtesy of Nada Dabbagh

Since beginning the project in August, the team—-Joe Breighner, Abigail Jones, Rashmi Jain, Tangie Gray and Allison Czapracki—-has faced numerous instructional design challenges. Having no prior knowledge of coal mining, the group had to decipher information in lingo and terminology they were not familiar with.

This is a challenge if you are trying to develop a training program.

Even though the team had conducted interviews with subject experts in the coal mining industry, had piles of manuals with mine safety information and had information from last year’s cohort, they still felt they were “in the dark” about mining. When the opportunity to visit an actual coal mine presented itself, the team was very excited.

Five hours underground on a guided tour left them with more than enough information, some of which really hit home. With claustrophobic tight spaces, dark passages and massive pieces of machinery, the students were immersed in an environment they had never experienced before.

“Everyone knows mining is a dangerous profession but when you see the sign hanging over the entrance to the mine reading ‘Safety First, you’ve got people at home that care for your well-being,’ it really rings true,” wrote Breighner in his online portfolio for the project. “There was a time in certain places in this country when the only job in town was mining, so most people didn’t have much of a choice but to go underground and try to make a living. If you are a miner in this day in age, you are of a special breed.”

While in the coal mine, students had the opportunity to ask questions of the experts.
Photo courtesy of Nada Dabbagh

“These are people who work very long hours and work hard,” said Gray. “We saw the stress factor they are under. We saw we needed to make the training as easy-to-use and straightforward as possible.”

Besides getting a better idea of the miners’ work environment, the students were able to physically experience the machinery and see how the terminology they had been researching translated into actual practices. From learning how to use the life-saving SCSR (self-contained self-rescue apparatus), riding a “mantrip” through section cross cuts and entryways, observing a 1250-ft.-long wall mining operation, standing under a 750-ft. mine shaft where a rescue capsule can be dropped, and interviewing several mining personnel, the students all agreed—it was as real as it gets.

“We really got a better understanding of what we were reading,” said Jain.

Czapracki agreed. “The project became really alive to us. It was an eye-opening experience.”

The students hope to have a fully-functional, online training system available in May to present to MHSA. The training will be used by smaller mines that might not have as much on-the-job training available to supervisors and miners as the larger mines.

“The students like working on these real-world projects because their end product will be put to use,” says Dabbagh. “The instructional design challenges they face in this project are similar to the challenges they will find in their future careers.”

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