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From keypunch to nanotech: DCTC turns 40

Nanotechnology is a growing program at DCTC.

The vocational education concept was just starting to spread in Minnesota when Dakota County Technical College was founded 40 years ago, and it sounds like the school's original architect wasn't exactly confident it would catch on.

Sharon LaComb, the school's vice president of institutional advancement, knew the architect then. When she asked what he was designing he told her it was a school.

"I said, 'Wow,'" LaComb said. "Then he said, 'In case it's not successful, I'm designing it so that it could be sold as a shopping mall."

Fortunately for Dakota County students -- but maybe not for south metro shoppers -- the technical college route has worked out pretty well at DCTC. Since opening its doors in 1970 the school has educated thousands of young students looking for a start on their first career and older students looking to expand their skills. It has evolved from a school that taught accounting, agribusiness and keypunch computing to offer courses in modern fields like nanotechnology and electronic publishing.

The classes have changed, but the mission of the school is much the same as it was 40 years ago: education for employment.

"I think that we all believe that educational philosophies tend to circle, and in that ring 40 years ago you had technical education as a primary focus because we knew and understood that our plumbing needed to be fixed, our cars needed to be fixed, our electrical wiring needed to be updated," LaComb said. "That understanding has not sustained itself. Today we're finding that ignoring those factors has caused a gap. We don't have individuals trained to go into those fields. We have huge numbers that will soon retire and those jobs are not being filled at this point."

DCTC launched in 1970 with classes held at the location of the current college and in a rented space at another location. There were fewer than 50 students that first year.

The school grew, though. There were more than 700 students in 1973. The school has grown from about 30 programs in 1974 to 50 today.

The school has changed in other ways, too. In the early days most students were fresh out of high school. Now, the average DCTC student is 31 years old.

In 1970, students were required to come to every class session. Now, about 20 percent of students attend classes online.

"You can be in your bathrobe and slippers," LaComb said.

LaComb said the school is seeing an increasing number of students who get a degree from a four-year college then come to DCTC to get practical experience to go with the theory they've learned.

A two-year degree from a technical college isn't always as prestigious as a four-year degree, but it offers hands-on experience that students can't always get at a four-year college. DCTC students build things. They have created artwork that hangs in Rosemount city buildings.

The school has added sports and its updated its programs along the way. LaComb said the school uses industry trends and student interest to keep its program offerings fresh. Even programs like auto repair that have been around since the beginning are very different than they once were. Modern car repair involves a lot of work with computers.

DCTC celebrated its birthday Wednesday at its annual showcase. The school offered food from area restaurants and handed out scholarships and other prizes.

LaComb said the future looks good for DCTC. Educational philosophies are coming back around. And she believes Minnesota legislators see the value in a form of education that, thanks to its specialized equipment and typically small class sizes, tends to have a high per-student cost.

"We are an institution that is being rediscovered," LaComb said. "We are rediscovered in the sense that we are the answer for education to employment.... Individuals in the area understand that it's important to focus on a job and that's what we're about."

Good news for students. Still bad news for shoppers.