In 2003, two NC State alumni with Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) located at Marine “Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, N.C., reached out to NC State’s College of Engineering with a problem. They needed engineers.
NAVAIR focuses on sustaining, preserving and maintaining vertical-lift aircraft, including helicopters like Marine One, Ospreys and AV-8B Harriers. Their Fleet Readiness Center-East (FRC-E) facility is also the largest industrial employer east of I-95, employing about 3,800 civilian Department of Defense employees, with more than 700 being engineers.
As with any job, people move on or they retire. NAVAIR’s engineering team at FRC-E needs to find about 50 new employees each year just to stay ahead of annual attrition.
Finding a Solution
So how do we get more engineers in Eastern North Carolina? We home-grow them.
NAVAIR had a vision of creating a local engineering program that would focus on the Department of Defense’s work at Cherry Point. This program would permit current non-degreed employees an option to pursue a degree in engineering on a part-time basis and also attract local traditional students who wanted work at Cherry Point after completing their degree.
NC State’s College of Engineering met with representatives from NAVAIR and conducted open houses to assess community interest in a local engineering program.
“When I retired from the Marine Corps, I already knew I wanted to switch to a career in engineering,” said Rodney Robinson, NC State Engineering student. “I had been trying to plan ahead for how I would get a degree from NC State or UNC or some other school in close proximity to this area. Moving was not really an option for my family situation.”
Like Robinson, moving was also out of the question for NC State student Dakota Cooper. When he got out of the Marine Corps, he knew he wanted to go to school and was considering earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering — but he has a wife and two kids.
The college met with leadership at Craven Community College, and together with NAVAIR they decided to build a partnership to help support NC State’s land-grant mission and drive economic development to Havelock by creating a local 2+2 degree completion engineering program.
As part of the partnership, the site-based engineering program is housed on the Havelock Campus of Craven Community College. Students take most of their freshman- and sophomore-level engineering courses at the community college as well as their math and humanities courses, and then they transfer into NC State’s engineering program. Students can also transfer into the program from any other college or university. Many sophomore level engineering classes are also available synchronously from the Raleigh campus.
Students enrolled in the engineering site-based program take Raleigh-based courses via online video teleconference and local courses from on-site NC State faculty. The Raleigh courses are taught by faculty in Raleigh, but students in Havelock can participate in the class lecture the same way Raleigh-campus students can.
The Havelock-based NC State faculty guide students in their local courses such as lab courses, systems engineering course and capstone design experience. NC State’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) was instrumental in the development of the program in Havelock as well as the development of overall curriculum, including lab classes. MAE faculty teach courses that are required for the degree program. Without the support of NC State’s MAE department, the Havelock program would not have developed into the ABET accredited program that it is.
“Having this program so close to home is really the number one reason I am able to pursue my degree without any real hardship,” Robinson said. “Having this program at Craven, I was able to build up a rapport with the faculty before I even transferred to NC State, and that transition was so easy that there was no impact on my academic performance.”
The MES program in Havelock provides students a unique blend of skills. They learn the core mechanical engineering principles including structural mechanics, materials, fluid mechanics, dynamics, mechanical design and thermal design and more. Because of its close proximity to Cherry Point, engineering managers consistently work with the program’s director Bill Fortney to implement new curricula based on the local and national needs of the base.
“Being able to tour the facilities on board Cherry Point is a great experience. We get to ask questions of real-world engineers that work in the fields in which we are studying and actually see what they do in a day-to-day setting,” Robinson said. “My honest opinion is that we get a better experience in many ways here compared to Raleigh students.”
Students also receive training in the formal systems engineering approach to the design and realization of complex integrated systems. This training allows students to become more skilled and confident engineers and to hit the ground running with today’s engineering challenges.
Out of some 700 NAVAIR employees, more than 200 are NC State graduates. Mark Meno, research and engineering group head at NAVAIR, said many of the students who are hired out of NC State’s Havelock Program start at a higher competency due to the curriculum and hands-on learning the agency provides. Meno said this helps the agency’s budget since they are not spending additional money to train these new employees.
NC State student Carli Starnes says NAVAIR’s Engineering Development Assistance Program (EDAP) has helped her gain real-world experience while being a student.
“Students work at NAVAIR as real engineers, which helps solidify what we learn in class,” Starnes explained.
NC State Engineering Online has made great strides in meeting the university’s land-grant mission of serving the needs of North Carolinians.
“For many of our students, being able to stay local makes the difference between pursuing engineering or not. The NC State program at Craven Community College gives them a chance to fulfill their dream of making a difference through engineering,” Fortney said.
The program has been beneficial for NAVAIR and the Havelock community as well; students are able to earn a degree from NC State without the hassle of leaving home or the cost burden of moving.
“Right now this serves me perfect, working right over there [NAVAIR] and being close to home,” Cooper said. Cooper also said that one thing that sets this program apart is Fortney, who serves as the program director but also teaches.
“He [Fortney] has a real-world perspective on how he teaches, which is a good balance for our classes because we get all of the academic stuff that we need,” said Cooper, “but it’s nice to come back and say, ‘OK, this is real-world, this is what you’re going to be doing and there’s proof right across the street.’”
The key benefit of the program for its students is getting an NC State education while being able to stay in Havelock.
Robinson said having the entire program facilitated on a small campus in Havelock near where he lives and works made it possible for him to pursue an engineering degree.
“Honestly, some of us would not be able to do so were it not for this program,” Robinson added.