CLARKSBURG — A push for more aerospace education programs in West Virginia has been in the making for years as the aviation and aerospace industry expects to see significant growth over the next decade in the state, country and world.
In response to the need for more aviation maintenance technicians, or AMTs, in the state, the West Virginia Department of Education jumped at the opportunity to explore aerospace education, what it could provide to the industry and how it could benefit students, said James Coble, coordinator for STEM and Manufacturing in the Office of Career and Technical Education, or CTE.
“The department decided to get involved to see if it could situate ourselves to replenish severe lack of aviation mechanics in the state,” he said. “We are expecting to see an increase in need in the industry across the U.S., not just here in West Virginia. With that demand, we are having to pick up what we are putting back into the workforce for those things.”
Since 2015-16, Coble said the state has grown from two to three aerospace programs to seven, and that number could be going up this year.
Programs at Bridgeport, Oak Hill, Lincoln County, Liberty, Mingo Central, Brooke and Greenbrier high schools are in full swing, partnering with aviation and aerospace industry businesses and officials in their region, he said. An additional program at Harrison County’s UTC partners with Aurora Flight Sciences to provide a machine tool machinist program.
“We have been working with the Southern Regional Education Board, or SREB, and their Advance Careers Aerospace Engineering program, putting them into high schools around the state,” he said. “We are also looking to incorporate these programs at the James Rumsey Technical Institute in Berkeley County, and there has been heavy consideration for programs at the high schools or CTE center in Putnam County.”
The SREB, ACAE programs and Project Lead The Way have incorporated two programs within an engineering pathway at Brooke High School and another at Greenbrier East High School.
Kevin Warfield, Project Lead The Way Aerospace instructor, said his course at Greenbrier East High School is designed to cover aviation and aerospace from its history, flight plan and simulation, to the orbital mechanics of space. They end the semester building and launching model rockets.
The class primarily targets 11th- and 12th-grade students and allows them to make a more informed decision about college, Warfield said. It also will benefit students to have seen some of the information prior to their post-secondary aviation programs, he said.
Warfield said in addition to the advanced math skills that the course assists in strengthening, the program also provides a great deal of hands-on project work.
“This course is always giving the students something new to put on their resume, whether that is engineering something or utilizing a different software. We cover a variety of soft skills and technology that students will be able to use, whether they’re in the industry or not,” he said.
“What I keep hearing from the industry is that a lot of people are ready to retire, but there isn’t anyone to replace them,” he said. “I am hoping over the next few years that myself and the other aerospace teachers in the state can start supplying students to fill those voids.”
Kimberly Cortines, an aerospace engineering teacher at Oak Hill High School, said her four-year completer program provides students with a vast knowledge of the industry as they complete 23 projects and presentations, build or operate technology and equipment and meet with industry business partners and educators.
By exposing students to the many parts of the industry, Cortines said they aren’t tailoring the course to just one group of students.
“These kids are really a pipeline going into many of the different aviation, aerospace and engineering fields and programs that are available in our state and country,” she said. “There are so many routes that these students can take. We expose them to the different options so they can decide if they want to go to college, trade school or straight into the workforce.”
This is Cortines’ fifth year with the program, she said. Oak Hill High School was the first school in the state to incorporate an aerospace engineering pathway opportunity.
Bridgeport High School houses the Harrison County Academy of Aviation Technology, which offers an exploratory curriculum to introduce students to a wide range of aviation jobs, according to instructor Ralph Snell.
“We don’t particularly engage in any one facet of those jobs, but rather lead students to exploring engineering and hands-on building projects,” he said. “Our hope is that students will gain interest in aviation mechanics or FAA certified airframe powerplant programs, or the field in general.”
Another option for students is to utilize the new agreement between Harrison County Schools and Pierpont Community and Technical College, which allows students to start their Airframe and Powerplant program as a junior in high school, Snell said.
Snell said although this is the first year of the program in Harrison County, it has gained a lot of interest from students not only at Bridgeport High School, but from South Harrison, Robert C. Byrd and Lincoln high schools. The interest looks as if it will continue throughout the four-course program, Snell added.
“The need in the area is unbelievable,” he said. “The outlook for aviation jobs over the next 10 to 12 years in the world is in the millions, whether that is pilots, aviation maintenance technicians, TSA or engineers. Just in our area, companies with individuals eligible for retirement will need positions filled in addition to the positions they’ll add through expansion. It’s just a phenomenal opportunity for students.”
At Mingo Central High School, aerospace engineering instructor Joshua Johnson said the first year of their program has provided students in the course the opportunity to be licensed as Drone Pilots and fly with pilots at a local airport.
In a partnership with Southern Community College, Johnson said once per week an instructor visits his class and his students learn how to fly drones. Following the course, students can take the FAA test and become licensed Drone Pilots.
“We’ve also been working with a new airport in Mingo County, where the class was given the opportunity to take a 15 minute flight around the county with three pilots,” he said. “This was something that they all really enjoyed.”
Aerospace instructor David Adkins said his courses at Lincoln County High School prepare students with rudimentary skills similar to those in any engineering field, with an emphasis on aerospace. Lincoln County High School is in the first year of its program.
“This is providing them with information that will be valuable if they pursue engineering in college,” he said. “It’s a lot more than just saying these are aerospace courses. We are developing a broad base of skills in this program from communications to production.”
Adkins said it’s easy to forget about the businesses and industry opportunities that are available in the state, including NASA, pilot school in Charleston, mechanical repair school in Huntington, engineering in Morgantown, and the various expanding airports and aerospace and aviation companies.
“It has fingers everywhere,” he said. “Having the skill set is sometimes the most important thing and we are trying to provide students with the skill sets they need for an industry that is expanding.”
WVDE Coordinator of Communications Christy Day said there are things that the department is working on with various partners, but they aren’t ready to bring them to the public.
“We are certainly working on a lot of things within our partnerships, but we aren’t in a position to talk about those things at this time until they come to fruition,” she said. “The fact is, there is a lot of interest in aviation and aerospace. The department is ready to meet that work demand and has the flexibility to do so, which really speaks volumes about where the industry is and how the department is stepping up to fill those needs.”
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