The future looks bright for Toombs County High School students enrolled in the school’s three-course Heavy Equipment Operations (HEO) Pathway program. The high school is one of 12 high schools currently comprising the state of Georgia’s Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education (CTAE) program, which offers a pathway for students to enter the construction industry with training and knowledge of heavy equipment operation.

Learning in this program differs from most classes the students take during the school year. In the HEO program, students spend time on the school’s two state-of-the-art Cat® Simulators systems learning how to operate the Hydraulic Excavator and Dozer safely and correctly. They must complete three courses to receive a pathway completion certificate: Industry Fundamentals & Occupational Safety, Intro to Heavy Equipment: Excavator and Heavy Equipment 1: Bulldozer.

“We completed our first capstone test this past December,” explained Tom Brodnax, HEO instructor. “It was the single greatest thing I’ve been involved with in education in 22 years. Seeing the students go from the Cat Simulators onto the real iron looked just like they’ve been training on the real iron the whole time.”

Aside from driving trucks and tractors and occasionally operating an excavator to help a neighbor dig a pond, Brodnax does not have a background in using heavy equipment, but he was interested in it. When the opportunity came to be the program’s HEO instructor, the former physical education, nutrition, special education, and economics teacher jumped at it. And he loves it!

Passion for Cat Simulators and SimScholars™ Curriculum

Brodnax attributes most of his passion for the position to the simulators and the training curriculum, SimScholars™. Brodnax has instructed more than 30 students on both simulator systems along with using the companion SimScholars™ curriculum, which he uses every week because it is a 1:1 match to all the simulator exercises.

“Before we start a lesson, I explain what they’re supposed to be doing. Then, if I feel like they’re not doing it, I’ll come back to them and tell them to look at the section and write down 10 points on dozing over a high wall. SimScholars explains why they should or should not operate the machine a particular way which is part of why I like using it,” explained Brodnax, who has watched students coach each other on the simulators using the knowledge they gained from SimScholars curriculum.

“I’ve heard some students actually say, ‘Hey, you need to lift up right here because you’re not supposed to have it that steep,’ or ‘You’re digging down too deep, now your tracks are going to slip,’” said Brodnax. “They’re really learning.”

Typically, Brodnax’s has 10 to 12 students in each class, so students rotate from studying SimScholars to learning then practicing on the two simulators. “When students are done with SimScholars, I know they’re well versed enough to know what to do when they get on the simulators and not have to ask, ‘Now what do I do?’” said Brodnax. “I love SimScholars. I think it’s a great curriculum.”

Students Prove Their Skills

After the students completed the excavator trenching exercise, they practiced trenching with an actual mini excavator on land the school had access to for the course. “For some, it’s the first time they’ve ever been on anything – a tractor or anything. And they find it easier than the simulator,’” explained Brodnax, who thinks that is perfect. “That’s what you want. First, you want them to train hard; then, it’s easier when they operate the real machine.”

One student, in particular, stands out in the instructor’s mind. “He looked like he’d been operating a real machine all the time. Then, he got on the real machine and tore it up – in a good way!”

“When the students were tested for their capstones, the group testing them was so impressed, they said they’d hire every one of my students, right now, as an operator. The students showed they have good enough skills to be operators,” said Brodnax.

Everyone’s a Winner!

Brodnax shared that during a recent equipment challenge, his students won four prizes – first place, second place (two tied), and third place. “There were eight kids in the competition, and my kids took home four prizes!” said Brodnax.

Not only are the students winning, but the local construction companies are also. With the demand for skilled heavy equipment operators at an all-time high, the program’s students will help fill those jobs and keep the pipeline filled. Brodnax is confident that his students will be ready. “I believe in simulators and am super pleased. I have to say kudos to Cat Simulators and SimScholars for what the students are learning on the simulators.”

Editor’s Note: If your High School or Career Technical Center is interested in establishing a heavy equipment operations career pathway for students, contact our team.