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Wisconsin College Offers AV Systems Integration Program

In Madison, WI, one of America’s quintessential university towns, a small college sits in the proverbial shadows of the much larger and more well known state university.

EAV Installation II is the second in a three-course sequence designed to prepare students for work as AV installers. The focus is on practical, hands-on application of concepts, and mastery of core AV installation skills, including cabling, basic cable troubleshooting, and systems installation. In Madison, WI, one of America’s quintessential university towns, a small college sits in the proverbial shadows of the much larger and more well known state university. This diminutive college, called Madison Media Institute, offers a rare sort of associate’s degree program that would impress any custom integrator that learned his trade through the “school of hard knocks” rather than after attending a school of higher learning.

Madison Media Institute’s Electronic & AV Systems (EAV) program offers that rare college degree focused exclusively on training students for the AV integration profession. Started five years ago by veteran integrator Ben Engwall, who had graduated from the school’s music recording track in 1998, the school combines the best practices from CEDIA and InfoComm training, with Engwall and Steve Briggs, another integration veteran and CEDIA Certified Designer and member of the content action team for CEDIA’s ESD track, teaching the classes.

“Our whole emphasis is on training people for the audio-video industry,” Briggs said.

MMI’s total enrollment is a modest 400 students, with just 25 students in the EAV program. That allows for class sizes to average between five and 10 students. The EAV program is one of eight different education tracks at MMI, with the others being Digital Art & Design, Independent Digital Film, Entertainment & Media Business, Game Art & Animation, Mobile App Development, Recording & Music Tech, and Video & Motion Graphics. But it’s the EAV program that gets folks like CEDIA’s director of technical training, Jeff Gardner, so excited.

“MMI’s program is perfectly aligned with industry best practices, for both residential and commercial work,” he said. “It’s the best of its kind that I have seen. I wish there were 100 more just like them”

Each class is about four and half hours long and a semester lasts 15 weeks. Typically a student in the program will take five classes in a semester. The EAV program, which can be completed in 16 months for an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Electronic & Audio Visual Systems, offers a blend of lecture and hands-on training for students.

“In our installation classes, we talk about philosophies and theories, and then we go into the shop and [apply] them,” Briggs explained. “We have three installation classes where we do everything from hanging drywall to learning to work with tools, running wire, soldering, and installing speakers, and then we go into rack building and everything that an installer or technician would do in the field.”

The program also explores cable and RF theory, understanding antennas and satellite dishes, as well as systems design, and how to use design software from Visio and D-Tools.”

EAV’s Home Theater class offers a comprehensive look at home theater technologies, design principles, installation, and operation. This class is taught in a commercial level theater room, and offers students hands-on experience in audiovisual component installation, projection systems, and remote control system programming. “We teach all of the philosophies on how to build a database, how to work with your client database, and how to generate proposals,” Briggs noted.

During EAV’s first-semester design class, Briggs teaches acoustical principals and the technical difference between LED, LCD, and DLP display technologies, as well as different types of wiring and interconnects and connectivity options. In his second-semester design class, students are presented with more practical application assignments, where they are asked to design a project based on a specific scenario.

The curriculum also includes a networking class that covers the configuration of routers and how to set up media players and tackle IP control. And Briggs takes that even further by making sure his students understand how a computer works.

“In one of the initial classes, I literally have our students tear a computer apart and have them put it back together in the classroom,” Briggs said.

EAV also offers a troubleshooting class where the instructor will put forth scenarios where something is broken, and the students will have to figure out how to fix it.

“So we might have a broken network, or they might have a broken distributed audio or video system, and we walk through all of that and teach them how to fix all of those problems,” Briggs stated.

To provide a basic understanding of commercial AV integration, other EAV classes cover the specifics of nurse call systems and access control, surveillance, and fire alarm technologies. In the fourth semester, the school also offers systems integration and automation classes where students are taught basic programming principles and how to program remote controls using IR, RF, RS232, and IP control.

According to Briggs, RTI has donated products to the program for training purposes. The school also trains students how to program URC and Control4 products.

EAV includes a fully designed home theater with 235-inch screen and surround sound, and each year students build a theater from scratch.

To earn their degree, EAV students must fulfill general education (gen ed) requirements as well.

“In the first and second semester they’ll have at least one or two gen ed classes, but by the third semester, it’s all core classes,” Briggs explained.

Briggs added that the philosophy of EAV instructors has been to provide their students with a very wide skill set, so when they graduate, they can get a job in the field immediately.

“On average, about 90 percent of our graduates get jobs upon completion and about 25 percent of current students are already working in our local area for either custom integrators or AV providers,” Briggs said.

Engwall and Briggs are proud of their program, but they would love to see their enrollment grow to fulfill the demand for a qualified workforce in the industry.

“I can’t tell you how many people I have calling me year after year looking to hire our students as full-time employees or interns,” Briggs said. “Students come out with a really good, rounded background, and they’re pretty much ready to go. They won’t know everything, but they will have all of the building blocks. They will have built a million Cat-5 cables and terminated a ton of F-connectors. Most of our students do very well when they graduate. I’d just like to see more students.”

EAV Installation II is designed to provide each student with the opportunity to identify techniques for mounting video system hardware. It’s a sentiment shared by CEDIA’s Jeff Gardner, especially since residential and commercial integrators have begun hiring again, only to find that there is a serious lack of training for this type of work.

“There are a handful of high school career centers that have updated their ‘legacy’ electronics programs to teach an EST skillset, but not many,” Gardner said. “There are tech schools like Lincoln Tech that have more robust EST programs, but not nearly enough of them.”

The industry, Gardner added, is faced with the challenge of making young people aware of the exciting and viable career paths available in the AV integration industry.

“Moving forward, CEDIA will be doing much more to get the word out to tech schools and high school guidance counselors,” he noted. “Most people are not even aware of the size and scope of the electronic systems industry, or that there are so many jobs available for qualified candidates. CEDIA is working hard to get industry training into career centers and tech schools, which will help us get the best and brightest to join our industry. Watch for some exciting announcements early in 2014.”

Jeremy Glowacki is editorial director of Residential Systems and Systems Contractor News.

A Call to Action

One of the most common comments that CEDIA has been hearing from its members is that they need to hire people and can’t find anyone qualified. CEDIA is committed to changing that dynamic, but needs your help. The association would like integrators to identify schools in their area that might be good candidates to teach Electronic Systems Professional Alliance (ESPA) and CEDIA content and train people for the industry. Contact [email protected].