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Grooming a New Generation of "Fixers"
Simon Nance remembers his little boy asking him what it means to be an engineer. Before he could answer, the boy said, "Daddy, you’re a good fixer."

Scenes from the Middle School Counselors’ Engineering Workshop at NASA's Langley Research Center. Credit: NASA/Gary Banziger

To Nance, manager of training and development at STIHL Inc., an engineer is just that — a good fixer. And he hopes that a new generation of fixers is waiting in the wings. Of course, many of those potential fixers don't even realize that their iPads, phones and laptops were, in fact, created by engineers.

That’s where middle school counselors come in.

"You’ve got one of the most critical, challenging, demanding and rewarding careers," Col. David Chisenhall Jr., of Langley Air Force Base, told the counselors at a NASA Langley Research Center Middle School Counselors’ Engineering Workshop.

"And that’s providing for the growth, development and knowledge for our youth and for that, I thank you," he said.

Engineering Workshop

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NASA engineer Jim Batterson speaks to a group of educators at the Middle School Counselors' Engineering Workshop, which was hosted by NASA Langley's Office of Education and the Air Force Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Outreach Coordination Office. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Simon Nance

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Simon Nance, manager of training and development at STIHL Inc., spoke to educators at the workshop about what it means to be an engineer. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

The workshop, co-hosted by NASA Langley's Office of Education and the Air Force Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Outreach Coordination Office, gave educators from the Hampton Roads area an opportunity to meet with STEM professionals and learn tips on guiding their students toward STEM-related careers.

Nance told the counselors they couldn’t just answer the question of what an engineer does, but rather they should answer, "What does a career in engineering look like?"

To help them answer that question, Mel Ferebee, a NASA Langley engineer, gave the counselors a list called "Engineering A to Z." It detailed many different types of engineering, from aerospace and forestry to software and geomatics.

But making the students aware of the many careers in engineering is just the first step. Exposure is important too.

"If we give them early exposure then they’ll see what their self-fulfillment possibilities are," said Patrick Konopnicki, Director of the Office of Technical and Career Education at the Virginia Beach City Public Schools. "The sky’s the limit, the moon’s the limit, the stars are the limit – they can do anything they want."

After exposure, it's connection.

"The biggest thing we can do for kids at that grade level is give them some kind of personal connection so they can understand," said Denisse Aranda, NASA mechanical and materials engineer.

As a young Latina, Aranda experienced many difficulties in achieving her dream of becoming a NASA engineer. She ultimately succeeded, though, not only because she'd been exposed to engineering, but also because of her drive, good networking and experience.

For the rest of the day, counselors continued to learn how to bridge the gap from the unknown territory students often find themselves in to the known and potential opportunities of engineering. They also learned the most important thing: they are shaping the future-generation workforce.

"Your role in determining and providing that information — that picture of the art of what's possible at that middle-school age — is so important," said Jill Marlowe, director of NASA Langley's Research Directorate.

By: Sasha Congiu

The Researcher News
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