Programs Prepare Students for NASA Langley Positions | Thomas Nelson Community College

Programs Prepare Students for NASA Langley Positions

February 1, 2019
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Jonathan Harris has one to two months left before his apprenticeship at NASA Langley Research Center is complete.

NASA Langley Research Center has used its relationship with Thomas Nelson Community College to help fill its workforce for nearly 50 years. And despite an adjustment to its internship and co-op programs about 10 years ago, it’s likely the next generation of Langley workers also will include a high percentage of Thomas Nelson alums.

“They are very advanced coming out of Thomas Nelson,” said Keith Harris,  a Thomas Nelson alum who has been at Langley for nearly 40 years.

Harris is in the Aeronautics System Engineering branch and works closely with Thomas Nelson administrators and professors in conjunction with NASA’s Pathways Programs. As a matter of fact, Harris was involved in the Pathways Programs’ precursor, a co-op program, while at Thomas Nelson in the early 1980s.

The two programs have similar set ups. Students take classes at Thomas Nelson part time and work part time as interns at Langley. If all goes well with the internship, which usually lasts two summers, the student will be hired on as an apprentice. The apprenticeship lasts about three years, and again, if all goes well, the intern will be hired as a full-fledged government employee.

The co-op program between Thomas Nelson and Langley began in the 1970s and ran through the early 2000s.

“We relied on that pretty heavily,” said Harris, noting that a big advantage for Langley was its administrators and officials were in control of the hiring process.

“Around 2010 or so, the government decided not to do the co-op program, but called it a Pathways Intern program,” Harris said. “It was similar to the co-op program, except the government had control and it was open to students from all across the United States.”

Nearly a decade into the new arrangement, the results are similar. Thomas Nelson students are making an impact at Langley. At the 2018 Presidential Leadership Award, Thomas Nelson President John. T. Dever, in presenting NASA Langley with a special award for its longtime support of the College, noted the research center in Hampton had hired more than 500 Thomas Nelson students since the 1970s.

Harris admitted the work force numbers at Langley aren’t what they used to be, but with its work force getting older, he thinks a lot of new hires in the coming years will be from the Pathways Programs.

“With Thomas Nelson, that’s where we’re drawing our technician workforce from,” Harris said.

Harris said Thomas Nelson students stand out because of the combination of education and practical experience in their curriculum.

“It gives them a fundamental in electronics, and the program’s very good because it has given them a lot of hands-on experience too with the labs that they have,” he said.

Professor Deborah Lichniak, Electronics Engineering Technology program head at the College, is especially proud of the hands-on experience her students receive.

“My students do the hands-on labs, but I’m doing it with an application,” she said. “Now that you did this, I want you to develop this, and take it with you and show them you can apply it.”

When students complete her program, they have two years of actual applied experience.

Jonathan Harris, a 32-year-old from Gloucester who graduated from Thomas Nelson and Keith’s son, is in the apprentice program at Langley. He works in the systems integration and test branch. He has another month or two before his apprenticeship is over, after which he hopes to be offered a permanent position. He saw firsthand how the class work and lab work at Thomas Nelson meshed with his responsibilities at Langley.

“That’s why I like the program so much, because I could take what I was learning in real time and then go into NASA and do similar things. I said, ‘I’ve done this in class. I understand this,’” he said. “But then it was also nice that I would learn things at NASA and bring them back to class and help some of my classmates. It really worked well with the two.”

The critical thinking part of the program at Thomas Nelson was cited by two other students as being key to their success at the College and in the Pathways Program.

“You learn how to think through the problems that you’re given,” said Clayton Mills, a 22-year-old who also is done with his coursework at Thomas Nelson but has an apprenticeship at Langley. He is working in structures and material.

“She didn’t offer up answers very quickly, and that’s not in a bad sense by any means,” he said of Lichniak, who has been at Thomas Nelson since 2008. “It was to make you think through the problem yourself. And most of the time, you could answer it yourself.”

That ability is a huge benefit, he said, out in the real world.

“You’re able to catch when something doesn’t seem right in a design,” Mills said. “And you’re able to bring that up and explain why it doesn’t seem right.”

Sarah French, a 26-year-old from Poquoson, is in the Electronics Technology program and an intern in the Pathways Program. She has a little more than year to go before graduation, and hopes to then go to a four-year school. She also sees the benefits of the critical thinking, even though it may have taken her a while to realize its importance.

“I like how Ms. Lichniak makes us figure stuff out for ourselves, even if I don’t always appreciate it when it’s happening,” she said.

Keith Harris says the critical thinking is so important.

“It makes them think, and search, and look for answers,” he said. “That’s what we do out here.”