Mastercam University Prepares Machine Shop Teacher to Stay Ahead of Computer-Savvy Students

When Gene Hickey began teaching the art of machining in 1977, computer-aided manufacturing wasn’t a part of the curriculum. The Atari 2600 video gaming system was introduced that same year and, at $265 was a luxury for most households.  When Hickey decided to return to the classroom in 2006 – after a 15-year hiatus – he entered an environment where his students were computer-literate, having grown up using gaming systems that had gone mainstream with graphics that rivaled those in animated films.

Hickey initiated the purchase of several seats of Mastercam® CAD/CAM software (CNC Software, Inc., Tolland, Connecticut) when he took over the classroom/shop at South Shore Vocational Technical High School in Hanover, Massachusetts. He liked the software’s ease of use and the company’s accessible support system should he need assistance. As a machinist, Hickey had only used the software for creating relatively simple 2D machining programs. He quickly learned that Mastercam’s capabilities went far beyond basic programming and that these capabilities could get overly enthusiastic students in trouble if they did not have proper guidance.
He said, “These kids use the computers more like they use video games without the real comprehension of where they are headed, the dimensions they are traveling to, the planes they are working off, and the cutting speeds and feeds that they are trying to apply to the tools,” he said using the example of a cutter being programmed to “plow” right through a solid model on the screen. When applied to the manufacturing process, the tools would be snapped off and there would be no way for the cutting tool to extract material and get out of the pocket the student was trying to machine.
Going Online For CAM Education
Hickey realized that he needed to learn more about CAM software in order to get ahead of these computer-savvy kids, to teach them the proper way to use the software to generate a part program. If he needed to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to learn the many ways in which the CAM software could be manipulated to perform a variety of functions – good and bad – so be it. He investigated his alternatives and opted to take on-line courses with Mastercam University as one of many students watching the sun come up over their computer screens. So this past summer the teacher became the student and Hickey enrolled in the online Mill Basic Design and Toolpath course.
As an instructor focused on teaching the fundamentals of machining to his students, Hickey was especially interested in how they could be applied using a CAM software program. His Mastercam U course features a video presentation of a workpiece or other scenario and then an instructor demonstrates a particular milling application. “The instructors demonstrate CAM operations while at the same time explaining to the student how to use the software; they create an object and then they show how to apply the toolpath to that object,” he said. “They approach it soundly. It is very obvious to me that the guys who are working on the development of the software have a good understanding of machining.”
Hickey’s goal is to fully understand the functionality of Mastercam software so that he can pass it down to his students. “The kids who have a natural acumen for those functions will learn how to create a program, draw a 3D part, locate multiple work offsets, apply different machine surfaces, even machine contoured surfaces,” he said. Based on what he learned on-line as a Mastercam University student, he is now in a much better position to provide them with a sound understanding of the fundamentals of machining, including the use of CAM software, in order to make them more marketable and valuable to manufacturers.
The Up Side of Gamification
Ironically, while teachers like Hickey are dismayed and alarmed by students who use CAM software as if it were were a computer game, Mastercam University is investigating the possibility of taking advantage of this tendency to get students even more involved with their Mastercam University experience. Keith Butzgy, Corporate Training Manager at CNC Software, said his team is actually looking at computer games as models for ways in which future Mastercam University courses might be enhanced to more fully engage the student.
While Mastercam University is on track to introduce gamification that makes on-line learning more fun, Butzgy also cautioned that the over-riding objective is a very serious one. “The average age of people working in many machine shops is in the mid-fifties. That means there is going to be a lot of turnover in the years ahead. We need to do everything we can to bring the next generation up to speed as quickly as possible so that they can learn how to operate manufacturing systems that are becoming exponentially more sophisticated.”
As more and more shops invest in training for their employees, they discover the value of a program like Mastercam University, which can take the place of the classrooms or augment them. Shop workers, teachers, and students, can take these courses at their convenience without having their CAM learning experience detract from their other responsibilities. Currently, the Mastercam University programs can lead to an Associate Level Certification and a Professional Level Certification (for those who have significant machine shop experience).


1: Self-Paced Learner: To stay ahead of his computer savvy students, instructor Gene Hick takes on-line Mastercam® University courses (from CNC Software, Inc., Tolland, Connecticut). This allows him to fully understand the functionality of the Computer Aided Manufacturing software they are using, so he can pass that knowledge along to his students.
2: Bridging the Gap Between Gaming and Manufacturing Reality: “My machine shop students are quite skilled at playing virtual reality games but I need to be able to bring them back down to earth a bit to the actual realities of Computer Aided Manufacturing without curbing their enthusiasm. Mastercam U is helping me stay abreast of the latest developments in CAM so that I can help bridge the gap between their gaming world and the actual manufacturing world they will be entering upon graduation." Gene Hickey, Machine Shop Teacher, South Shore Vocational Technical High School.
3: On-Line Learning to One-on-One Instruction: Instructor Gene Hickey (L) works with student so he can better understand the Computer Aided Manufacturing best practices he has learned on-line taking Mastercam University courses.
4: Getting The Fundamentals Right allows students to use real CNC equipment safely in the actual world, not plowing tools through the workpiece as if it existed in some virtual reality.
Mastercam University