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What is Computer Aided Design / Drafting (CAD)?

ACC CAD / architecture project with blueprints in front of computer using CAD software.

Who says you get to have only one career in your life? As the Program Chair for Arapahoe Community College’s (ACC) Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) department, Rebecca Terpstra has a few careers under her belt. In that respect, she believes she has a great deal in common with her students, beyond the topics that she teaches.

“My background is actually a lot like some of our students,” says Rebecca. “We have a good third of our students who are coming to ACC when they are already well into their first, second, third, or even fourth career. Maybe they burned out with what they were doing or perhaps they wanted to do something more creative. That was my path as well.”

Rebecca discovered CAD as an adult learner while pursuing a new career as an interior designer. But she made a few detours along the way.

“I started out as a violinist,” says Rebecca. “I started playing the violin at the very early age of 2, and I did that until my late 20s. Then I thought I needed to do something that will make money, so I started doing some accounting. I'm not sure how I got into it — but I was doing accounting for engineering firms. I did that for a while and I thought, 'OK, I don't like this, maybe I need to go back and do something creative.’ So I went to ACC and enrolled in their interior design program.”

Initially, Rebecca was worried that her creative talents in music might not translate into the skills required for the interior design industry, but she quickly found her calling in computer aided design.

“I started my first CAD course and I simply fell in love with it,” recalls Rebecca. “I found something that I was really good at. I was so good at it that my instructor at the time asked me to come intern for her. So I started working for her while I was still in school.”

Following graduation, Rebecca worked in residential and commercial interior design before starting her own consulting firm. As well as doing CAD and 3D models for architects and interior designers, she also runs training workshops at industry events for Trimble — the publishers of SketchUp, a 3D modeling software program.   

“I'm now in my sixth year of teaching at ACC,” says Rebecca. “I was hired to teach SketchUp but when the chair of the interior design department heard that I was going to be teaching, she said ‘Come teach for me too.' So I teach in both the CAD and interior design departments. I guess teaching would be my fourth career!”

What is CAD?

Rebecca explains that computer-aided drafting (also known as computer assisted drafting and computer aided design) is a type of software that assists with the design process in all types of industries.

“With CAD software, you create and analyze something before you spend money on it,” says Rebecca. “It helps you visualize how an object is going to be in a space, or how it is going to look after it is produced. So you can create things that are as close to real-life as possible at varying scales — whether it’s to scale, a smaller scale, or larger scale — and you can edit them easily in the software.”

According to Rebecca, there are many different types of industry-specific CAD drafting software, capable of producing two-dimensional and three-dimensional designs.

“There is a program for everything and everyone really, but long story short: CAD is a way to create a prototype and fix it,” says Rebecca.

Architecture and Interior Design

ACC offers CAD certificate programs in architecture and interior design. While these industries might appear to be very different, there are unifying factors that bring both disciplines together.

“They are linked to each other in many different ways,” says Rebecca. “They both involve problem-solving the ‘ins and outs’ of how people cohabit with various environments. We look at how to make spaces and buildings as safe as possible but also how to create something that is attractive to people. With the CAD certificate programs that we have at ACC, we start with the same basic courses, whether it’s architecture, interior design, or engineering, then depending on which industry a student wishes to pursue, they branch off with industry-specific software.”

Rebecca warns that there are no “easy options” in CAD.

“It doesn't matter which industry a student is interested in —  architecture or interior design. In our field, we're in charge of people's lives and their well-being,” says Rebecca. “When students join the program, particularly on the interior design side, they don’t understand just how in-depth we go. They think that they are just going to go and pick out some fabrics or finishes and call it good. There is so much more to it than people realize and, on top of that, everything is digital these days.”

Because we do live and work in a digital world, ACC’s CAD classes regularly attract students who are already working in the industry and want to update their skills in order to stay relevant.

“In any type of industry, you have to know that you can’t succeed unless you are partially fluent in industry-specific software," says Rebecca. “Someone might think, ‘Oh, I can get by with the basics,’ but when they get out there they realize that clients and employers want more. Everybody needs to know technology, so they come back here as students and they learn more.”

The college primarily uses the Autodesk suite of software which has products available across all three disciplines. Autodesk includes tools like AutoCAD, AutoCAD Civil 3D, and Revit that are widely used by architects, civil engineers, and construction professionals across industries. ACC offers the added benefit of making these tools free for students to use. As students progress through their CAD drafting classes they also become familiar with other software including SketchUp (3D modeling software), 2020 (kitchen and bath design), and SolidWorks (engineering / mechatronics). Of course, all these tools are frequently updated to keep up with the latest technology.

“CAD drafting software, just like any other software, gets better and better each day,” says Rebecca. “I’m a big fan of the subscription models most of the software companies are putting out these days. Having a subscription means whenever there is an update we get the best of what's happening with the software rather than having to wait and purchase all new software which is very expensive.”

Exciting Trends in CAD

Since it is a rapidly evolving technology-related field, it’s important for CAD students to stay up-to-date with industry trends and new developments.

“What I'm excited about now in technology, especially with CAD, is 3D printing,” says Rebecca. “Manufacturers are using software to 3D print the items they've created.” 3D printing can translate into considerable cost savings for a company. “Engineers can print prototypes such as circuit boards and troubleshoot issues before production begins and a lot of money is invested.”

Rebecca is also keeping a watchful eye on virtual reality technologies.

“You can already use virtual reality to move things around a particular environment,” says Rebecca. “I'm looking forward to the time where we create things in virtual reality; maybe that will happen in the next 10 years.”

Creative and Practical Prerequisite Skills

According to Rebecca, students in the CAD certificate program need to be good visual communicators — and they need to be handy with some pretty old-fashioned but tried and true tools.

“It is important that students know how to hand draft or at least sketch,” says Rebecca. “It doesn't have to be to a certain scale but being able to communicate with a pencil or pen in hand is incredibly important. We have students who ask us, ‘Why do we have to hand draft?’ Well, when you're out on a job site, you are probably not carrying your computer with you. You might have an iPad or something like that but you would still have to use a pen to draw on the iPad, so students must get to know the basics of drafting.”

Math is also a very important skill used on-the-job.

“We would like students to take a math course before they start,” says Rebecca. “In interior design, you do need to know basic algebra. Obviously, in architecture, you need to know a lot more.”

Opportunities after Drafting Classes

After completing the CAD certificate program at ACC, students typically either progress into a degree program or enter the workforce.

ACC offers Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree programs in interior design and mechatronics, which are both popular next steps with CAD drafting students. For those interested in architecture or engineering, it is possible to transfer to another institution to continue with their education.

According to Rebecca, the CAD certificate opens students up to many employment opportunities, and many choose to go right into the workplace.

“With the certificate, you can be a CAD technician or a CAD draftsperson,” says Rebecca. “They get paid very well. It can be a stressful job but there is a lot of job security because these professionals are needed in every type of industry.”

The stress that Rebecca alludes to is a result of the exacting nature of the work involved.

“You need to research the codes beforehand. You need to put the drawing into the computer, make sure it’s accurate and to the right scale,” says Rebecca. “You need to be sure to dot your i’s and cross your t’s before you go home for the day. For some people, this can be stressful. Of course, there are others who thrive on it.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a CAD technician with an associate degree can expect to earn a median wage of $56,830 per year (that’s with some experience). Nearly 50% of computer aided designer jobs are in architectural, engineering, and related services, 25% are employed in manufacturing and a further 10% in construction.

Why Choose ACC for Computer Aided Drafting?

As a graduate of ACC herself, Rebecca has nothing but high praise for her alma mater.

“I got an incredible education at ACC,” says Rebecca. “I’ve never met a group of instructors who care so deeply about their students.”

Rebecca believes she and her fellow adjunct instructors carry those same values forward.

“I see that same commitment in my colleagues,” she says. “I don't just work with them, they are my friends also because of the passion they have for their industry and for our students — and our students see that.”

Not only are they committed to student success, but the instructors bring to their classrooms extensive cutting-edge experience with real-world application. “All of the CAD instructors are adjuncts so they are still out in the industry,” says Rebecca. “They know what works and what doesn't work. We know what to tell our students — ‘Hey, don't use that software, you should use this,’ or, ‘You really need to take this course from this person.’ We are always happy to help our students and help guide them and so I think that's what sets ACC apart from some of the other community colleges in Colorado that I've heard about.”

With so much experience on hand, Rebecca urges her students to take full advantage of the opportunities available at ACC.

“I want my students to know that if they need help, all they need to do is ask,” says Rebecca. “If you don't feel comfortable talking to your instructor, come to me as the CAD program chair. I will always listen to what people have to say.”

Rebecca also highlights how ACC supports its instructors so they, in turn, can better support their students.

“One of the great things about ACC is they want us to be the best instructors possible. They provide so many professional development programs so we can better ourselves as instructors, as people, and in our various industries. I really think that ACC is just a phenomenal school.”

Learn More About Computer Aided Design and Drafting

To learn more about ACC’s CAD certificate programs in architecture and interior design, or to talk with one of our instructors about enrolling in a program, visit the Computer Aided Drafting program page on our website.