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Public-private partnership outfits Texans for a high-flying future

Aiming High

Despite last year's sharp downturn for "dotcoms," advanced technologies continue to play an increasingly important role in the Texas and national economies, creating a growing need for educated, technically trained workers.

Meeting this need is proving to be a challenge, due to a widespread shortage of engineers and other high-technology workers--and the trained and dedicated mathematics and science teachers needed to produce them.

In the Clear Lake area, home to America's manned space-flight operations, a coalition of private companies, government and educational institutions is attempting to address the state's shortage of high-tech expertise. The Aerospace Academy for Engineering and Teacher Education has spearheaded a series of educational and training partnerships to ensure that the aerospace industry can continue to draw upon an educated, technically able workforce.

Academy executive vice president Dr. Marie Dalton outlines the challenge: "Within a few years, the industry will lose something like a third of its workforce [to retirement]. When they retire, they'll be taking a wealth of knowledge and experience with them. There's a real concern as to how to replace those workers."

The Aerospace Academy, created in December 2000, intends to use the excitement of space flight to inspire students to explore math and science and to provide professional educators with the training they need to encourage and assist them.

The director of NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC), the chancellor of the San Jacinto College District, the president of the University of Houston (UH) at Clear Lake and the superintendent of Clear Creek Independent School District conceived the academy. Since its formation, other institutions including Prairie View A&M University, Baylor College of Medicine, the College of the Mainland and the University of Texas (UT) Medical Branch at Galveston have joined as academy partners, as have the Clear Lake Area Economic Development Foundation and members of the area's business community.

Jim Reinhartsen, president of the Clear Lake Area Economic Development Foundation, says, "We're involved because it's crucial for the continuation of the quality of employment we have in this area," noting that space flight operations directly employ more than 23,000 people in the Clear Lake area. All too often, Reinhartsen says, "our young people go somewhere else for their higher education, and then they never come back."

The academy includes three separate institutes: COSMOS, the High Technology Institute and the Mathematics/Science Pedagogy Institute.

COSMOS (Community-Oriented Science and Mathematics Opportunities for Students) is designed to prepare secondary students for careers in the aerospace, petrochemical and medical industries.

COSMOS is using $145,000 in grant funding from the Houston Foundation, a major charitable organization, to develop secondary school curricula in engineering, medical sciences and information technology. UH-Clear Lake, the San Jacinto College District, Prairie View A&M University and the Houston Area Technology Advancement Center are helping develop the engineering and information technology curricula, and Baylor College of Medicine, the UT Medical Branch at Galveston and the San Jacinto College District are creating the medical curriculum.

Initially, these curricula will be used in the Clear Creek and Pasadena school districts, but the academy ultimately hopes to offer them to other schools as well.

High Technology Institute
The academy's High Technology Institute focuses on cultivating the skills employees will need in high-tech fields to improve the productivity of their companies as well as their own prospects for advancement.

To accomplish this goal, the academy received a grant of more than $2.4 million from the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) to provide training in information technology and engineering topics to 1,140 employees of 26 companies in the Clear Lake area, including major NASA contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the United Space Alliance. This training, provided by San Jacinto College, UH-Clear Lake and Prairie View A&M, will be offered both online and through classes held in the Clear Lake area, some at the facilities of participating aerospace firms.

The institute also won a three-year, $328,000 contract from NASA to coordinate the space agency's KC-135 Student Flight Program. This program allows college students--324 in 2002--to propose, design and build low-gravity experiments for testing in a NASA KC-135 airplane, the infamous "Vomit Comet" used in astronaut training, which climbs and dives to produce brief periods of near-zero gravity.

Also funded through a grant from NASA-JSC is the Community College Aerospace Scholars program, which will allow 300 community college students and 30 college professors each year to learn through interaction with JSC engineers and scientists.

This semester-long instruction is delivered through the Web and an intensive two-day visit to JSC, during which participants work on team projects under the tutelage of NASA personnel. The academy targets "nontraditional" students, such as women and minorities, for the program. The first two-day JSC site visit was held in March 2002.

In addition to these efforts, the High Technology Institute is participating in a proposal to create a national aerospace science Technical Center of Excellence, called SpaceTEC by its supporters. The federally funded centers, created under the authority of the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Advanced Technical Education Program, work through community colleges to carry out projects intended to increase the nation's pool of skilled technicians. In March 2002, the U.S. had 10 of these centers.

SpaceTEC is championed by a consortium of nine community colleges including San Jacinto College, as well as affiliated school districts and four-year institutions. As envisioned by the consortium, SpaceTEC would create two-year degree programs at community colleges to train aerospace technicians. The center also would create a nationally recognized aerospace technician certification.

If approved, SpaceTEC headquarters would be at Brevard Community College near Florida's Kennedy Space Center, with branches and projects at each of the member colleges. According to Dalton, an NSF team has conducted site visits and indicated that they will recommend SpaceTEC for approval.

Mathematics/Science Pedagogy Institute
The third of the Aerospace Academy's institutes is devoted to helping teachers develop new and more effective ways to teach math and science.

The Mathematics/Science Pedagogy Institute kicked off its operations in 2001 with its "Making Connections" class, which provided 22 math teachers from nine Texas school districts and community colleges with practical demonstrations of how the concepts they teach are used in aerospace operations at JSC. Other participants assisting the program included Lockheed Martin Space Operations, Barrios Technology and Space Center Houston.

Lisa Rhea, a professor of mathematics at San Jacinto College who participated in Making Connections, says that the class "showed how math is applied, to make connections between what we're teaching in the classroom and how it's used in the real world."

NASA personnel, for instance, demonstrated how trigonometry and linear algebra are used in the calculations needed to move the space shuttle's robotic arm.

"I found it useful," says Rhea, "in that it gives me more to put in my library of real-world applications that I can share with the students."

The institute plans to increase its teacher training in spring 2002. The TWC notified academy officials that the institute will receive $598,000 in grant funds from the commission to train 707 Texas math and science teachers. The institute will work with San Jacinto College, Space Center Houston, Prairie View A&M University and the Region 4 Education Service Center to offer this training, which will include internships and "job shadowing" that place teachers alongside workers at JSC and its aerospace contractors.

The institute also works with teachers to determine what sort of assistance they need to teach scientific coursework more effectively. The institute expects to hold focus groups in April 2002 with teachers from seven area school districts to generate ideas for improving beginning algebra instruction.

The Aerospace Academy is involved in a complex array of programs, and its partners hope it will come to have a significant influence on the industry. According to Dr. Dalton, "The Aerospace Academy is demonstrating what can be accomplished when industry, educators and government work together to address a critical and growing problem."

Bruce Wright