TNCC and NASA Langley Train Workforce of the Future in High Tech Field Through a Partnership Spanning Decades

Published: February 3, 2009

High tech industries demand a well trained workforce.  In an association spanning decades, Thomas Nelson Community College and NASA Langley Research Center have been at the forefront of training students for high tech careers all while staying on the cutting edge of aerospace industry trends.  Students from TNCC have been gaining valuable paid experience interacting with veteran NASA Langley innovators since the early 70s.

Training and/or apprenticeship programs at NASA Langley date back to 1943 and the first class of roughly 15 students from TNCC began technician training in June 1971 – about four years after the College opened. Under this program, these students attended classes at TNCC one full semester and worked at the Center for one full semester, according to NASA/Langley’s Deputy Director for Fabrication Stewart Harris.

“Economically you need this high tech workforce in place because you cannot lure high tech companies to the area and say ‘give us 10 or 15 years and we’ll develop a really high tech workforce for you.’  You have to have the workforce in place to attract the companies as well as the government programs. Having folks in place who want the training and experience in these high tech fields is vital,” said Harris.

Continuing through the 90s the training program that began in 1971 marked the beginning of a longstanding partnership between TNCC and NASA Langley to proactively sustain a qualified high tech workforce in the region.

Two training programs that began in 2007 are currently in progress with roughly 18 TNCC students gaining practical paid experience in the areas of research; flight operations and simulation; fabrication technology development; center operations; and safety, mission and quality assurance.

The partnership has also given the College opportunities for curriculum expansion in the academic division of Mathematics, Engineering and Technologies through division Dean Patricia Taylor’s close collaboration with SpaceTEC®, the National Science Foundation’s Center of Excellence for Aerospace Technical Education.  The College is one of the program’s 12 partner community colleges nationwide and was host site to a SpaceTEC® conference last May.  SpaceTEC® and its industry partners offer programs that prepare aerospace technicians to become Certified Aerospace Technicians™ and TNCC is an authorized site for the exam.

Taylor said as a result of the College’s association with NASA Langley, TNCC has developed courses in lasers and fiber optics, robotics, composite materials, and modeling and simulation.  As an added benefit, the Associate Degrees in Mechanical Engineering Technology and Electronics with Specialization in Electrical Engineering Technology were modified for transfer for a bachelor’s degree.

SpaceTEC’s Certified Aerospace Technician program was recently noted by the Federal Aviation Administration in their publication of Support Services for Commercial Space Transportation, creating new opportunities for curriculum development and work based experiences in the industry’s efforts to commercialize space travel.

Taylor said the College’s progress in developing new curricula for SpaceTEC® has kept NASA Langley interested in Thomas Nelson programs.  NASA Langley has provided content experts to assist in the curriculum development, planning and instruction.

“NASA Langley continues to build on its traditions in air- and space-flight currently helping develop the technology needed to return to the moon and move on to explore Mars and beyond,” she said.
During the course of the current training program, TNCC students working at NASA Langley had an opportunity to play a role in the fabrication of a launch-abort system and crew capsule among other exciting projects that are part of NASA’s new vision for space exploration to replace the nation’s space shuttles that have been in flight since the 80s, noted Taylor and Harris.

“We develop very highly skilled technicians and as a result making these individuals very competitive not only at NASA but also if they decide to leave and work for one of our industry partners in this community  to supplement that high tech workforce out there,” said Harris.

“I believe it gives the community a competitive advantage because you need these skills in an area such as [Hampton Roads] …The good thing about the relationship is typically when we recruit, our recruitment reflects the demographic; so we have a very diverse workforce that basically reflects the population of Hampton Roads,” he added.

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