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NCI Launches Academy Focused on Engineering and Technology

Aug 23, 2012

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Thirty-three local high school students are preparing for high-tech careers through a New College Institute (NCI) program launched last week. The Academy for Engineering and Technology aims to prepare students to enroll in higher education programs related to those two fields or seek entry-level jobs with manufacturers using advanced technology."We weren't sure what to expect, but the response has been great," said Leanna Blevins, NCI's associate director and chief academic officer. No more students will be accepted into the academy this semester because "we don't want the class to be too large (for instructors) to give students individualized attention," Blevins said.

NCI developed the program with help from Virginia State University (VSU). Sophomores, juniors and seniors from Martinsville, Magna Vista and Bassett high schools and the private Carlisle School are eligible to participate in the dual-enrollment program with the university."Parents and students seem to be very excited about the program and the possibilities that come with it," Blevins said. Those possibilities, she said, include learning experiences such as helping to build a race car and paid summer internships with local companies.

Modern industries use heavily computerized machines. Employees must be able to interpret and understand data from the machines, such as operating temperatures and fluid pressures, so manufacturing processes run smoothly, hence the need for educational programs to teach them those skills.

RTI International Metals and Commonwealth Laminating & Coating, which have plants in the Patriot Centre at Beaver Creek industrial park in Henry County, are examples of such companies, NCI officials have said. Students in the academy toured Commonwealth Laminating on Wednesday. "They were energetic and excited about seeing real-world opportunities for things they are learning in school," said company board member Richard Hall.  In addition to needing technology skills, Hall said, advanced manufacturing workers must know a lot about science and math. And, "the ability to have a solid thought process and think on your feet is something we look for in every employee" that is hired, he said.  In terms of teaching those skills, Hall added, NCI's academy is "one of the biggest single positive steps I've seen in the area in a long time" to prepare students for the modern work force.

By developing the academy, NCI and VSU hope to attract other technology-driven companies to the area since people here will have the training needed to do jobs they would provide, according to officials. Internships can be "a pipeline that employers have to hire from" once the students have completed their studies, Blevins said. Hall said that when Commonwealth has job vacancies, it is willing to hire people out of high school who are "sharp, driven people."   Some of the academy's students informally have said they would like to go to college after graduating from high school while some have said they want to go straight to work, Blevins said. 

NCI will be coordinating internships for students because many employers, especially industries, do not have experience in working with high-schoolers, Blevins said. The institute will match students' skills with employers' needs and responsibilities of jobs that interns could do, she added.

In order to take part in the academy, students must have passed courses in geometry, trigonometry and math analysis. Students now enrolled are taking classes in advanced placement calculus, technology's impact on society and engineering graphics. The calculus class is being taught at high schools by teachers certified to teach dual-enrollment classes. VSU instructors are teaching the other two classes at NCI. Students travel back and forth to the institute by bus.

NCI has not yet decided courses to be taught in the spring. That is because "we're building the bicycle as we ride it," Blevins said, using an analogy.

The academy is based somewhat on some European industrial apprenticeship programs. However, NCI Executive Director William Wampler has said that to his knowledge, nothing like it exists in America, at least in the Southeast.

Students in the academy are considered to be dually enrolled at VSU. After graduating from high school, if they immediately do not go to work, they can pursue a degree from the university or another higher education institution. Because VSU's engineering and technology department is certified by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Blevins said, affiliated courses usually are transferable to other college's engineering programs.

NCI is working with Patrick Henry Community College to find a way for students at the college to enroll in the academy, Blevins said

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