Alabama and the scary smart kids

Jane Nicholes
October 2018

From middle school robotics to university level aerospace engineering, Alabama
schools and job training programs continue expanding to keep up with economic
development in the aviation and aerospace industry.

Where once people may have thought only of NASA in Huntsville and vaguely
remembered that Brookley Field once serviced airplanes during World War II, the
state is now a big player internationally. Major employers include not just NASA but
Airbus, Boeing, Redstone Arsenal and Fort Rucker, along with so many related
companies and suppliers that the state has had its own Alabama Aerospace Industry
Association since 2003.

“You just have to believe that we’re really at the beginning of what could be an
amazing growth for an industry that already is significant in its importance to
Alabama,” said Jo Bonner, interim executive director of the Tuscaloosa County
Industrial Development Authority.

As a former congressman from Mobile and former vice chancellor for economic
development at the University of Alabama, Bonner stays connected with the industry,
from his involvement in the original battle with Boeing for the Air Force refueling
tanker contract that led to Airbus locating an assembly plant in Mobile to most
recently being part of the state delegation to the Farnborough International Air show.

“People don’t really realize how many people work in the aerospace and defense
industry in Alabama,” Bonner said. Made in Alabama, a product of the Alabama
Department of Commerce, puts the figure at 61,000. The Aerospace Industries
Association uses a figure of 53,470.

Starting early
When state officials gathered in September at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley for the
ceremonial groundbreaking for Flight Works Alabama, there seemed to be as many
kids around as state officials, Airbus employees and business partners. Flight Works
will be an “aviation experience center,” a partnership of the state and Airbus aimed at
educating young people interested in the subject matter and visiting adults about the

With Airbus pulling together a second jetliner assembly center at the Aeroplex, it will
need even more engineers and skilled technicians. At the gathering, students from
public and private schools across Mobile County were playing music, marching and
demonstrating miniature robots. Many were students of robotics, an extracurricular
piece of AMSTI, the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative.

“These kids, they’re kind of scary, they’re so smart,” said Tracy LePiane, language
arts teacher at Semmes Middle School. “They come with ideas and we try to find a
way to help make it happen.”

Students are learning in a temporary Flight Works facility. LaPiane said her robotics
group is made up of engineering students recruited beginning in about sixth grade,
but they can be as young as second grade.

Leontyne Jones, a seventh-grade life science teacher at Calloway-Smith Middle
School in Mobile, has a robotics group of 15 students who do everything after school
and on weekends. She wants them to be exposed to careers and to realize they have
choices about their futures.

“They’re excited about it,” Jones said. “If I’m excited about it, they’ll be excited about
it. I try to set the tone to get them excited about it. I let them know that it’s the real
world and this is what you’re going to be exposed to in the real world.”

High school and college together
High school aerospace and aviation programs are available in a handful of Alabama
public systems, said Chris Kennedy, an education administrator in the state
department of public education. Kennedy overseas several workforce oriented
clusters of subjects including transportation.

The public school systems with their own programs tend to be concentrated in parts
of the state where the industry is strong and are related to the greatest employment
needs, Kennedy said. Currently there is a need for pilots and air traffic controllers in
the military and flight sectors such as Fort Rucker and the Enterprise area, while
Airbus is expanding from one assembly line to two in Mobile.

Kennedy urges employers to work with local public school systems to support
programs that will funnel students into careers with hometown companies. The state’s
role is to provide assistance for technical education geared to individual school

“I would encourage industry to get engaged at the school level, to encourage more
programs, and then how can they support the programs that are there now,” he said.
“In education you’re only as good as the curriculum we have. We want support from
local industry.”

Students can also take advantage of dual enrollment with community colleges to get
a jump on post-secondary education. High school students can take community
college courses that count for both high school and college credit. Three community
colleges systems have aviation colleges within their systems: Enterprise State, Snead
State, and Coastal Alabama. The colleges and their associated campuses offer a
variety of technical certification programs and associate degrees, with options to
move on to four-year degrees.

“We work with a lot of different high school systems that are near those aviation
colleges across the state, and set up programs where they can start their path to a
degree or to a certificate in high school and get credit for it,” said Jeff Lynn, vice
chancellor, workforce and economic development for the community college system
as a whole.

Total dual enrollment in aviation, aerospace and avionics programs is fairly small at
about 300, Lynn said, but it is growing. “We’re really excited about the opportunity to
create these really strong, solid, workforce pipelines for aviation in our state.”

Lynn also works with a vital component of recruitment and workforce development,
Alabama Industrial Development and Training (AIDT). It supplies future employees
for specific positions with companies using its services as part of an incentive

“AIDT is an incentive program to help companies start up or expand,” Lynn said.  
“What they’ll do is work directly with the company and do recruitment and screening
of the people that they want to interview. They’ll do some pre-employment training to
help screen out or to help train people to go through the application.”

For someone who needs to change careers in midlife, for example, AIDT is the place
to go to find a job with a company such as Airbus, Lynn said.

Bonner sings the praises of AIDT, which he calls the No. 1 job training program in the

“In many cases they are our secret weapon,” Bonner said. “When we’re recruiting a
company to come to Alabama, we can give them reference after reference after
reference of people who have used AIDT and have been supremely pleased with the
agency coming in and learning what the company needs to call up a trained
workforce and then what they can do to help identify that trained workforce, help
them hire and then help them be successful.”

At the university level
For the students who will become the next generation of engineers, scientists and
pilots, the University of Alabama at Huntsville, Auburn University and University of
Alabama have the most well-known degree programs. UAH is essentially a child of
the space program and is a nationally known research university. Auburn offers a
professional flight degree and multiple certifications for future pilots.

But many other schools are expanding offerings. Flight Works is touting connections
with nine higher education partners, including Auburn University, Bishop State
Community College, Coastal Alabama Community College, Embry-Riddle
Aeronautical University, Troy University, Tuskegee University, University of South
Alabama, University of Alabama and University of West Alabama.

Things are changing so fast that state government officials and educators are
recognizing the need to attract young people to careers based in math, science and
technology at an earlier age and to connect education programs at all levels with
future employers, Bonner said. He suggested that the fantasy world of the Jetson
family, with flying cars and other wild ideas, is closer than you think.

“I think we’d better buckle up and get ready for the ride, because we’re going to be
taking advantage of these new technologies and these new discoveries. We’re going
to benefit from it, probably, in our lifetime, as opposed to something that sounded so
futuristic just a few short years ago.”


Student at Airbus groundbreaking now at UAH

In April 2013, a triumphant groundbreaking was held for the Airbus final assembly
plant in Mobile, Ala. Victoria Corob, then an eighth-grader at Clark-Shaw Magnet
School, was one of the speakers that day, and by all accounts she made quite an

Standing in her school uniform with a powerful group of business executives and
state and local officials, her poise and enthusiasm about engineering, science and
the opportunities for young people in Mobile prompted several on-the-spot job offers
from her elders.

Today, more than five years later, Corob is a sophomore at the University of
Alabama in Huntsville. She is pursuing a double major in mechanical engineering and
Spanish, the former because she thinks it offers more versatility than aerospace
engineering. She picked UAH not only because of its associated research and
technology options but because it also has a strong foreign language program, the
best of both worlds.

Corob spent three months in Spain during a study abroad stint as a senior in high

“It’s my dream to one day live there permanently and be an engineer,” she said. As it
happens, Airbus employs 12,700 people in Spain.

Corob grew up in Semmes in Mobile County and graduated from the Alabama School
of Math and Science in Mobile with a distinction in modern languages. Her
grandfather was an engineer after serving in the Navy.

“He would show me all these different technical drawings and show me how he solved
different problems,” Corob said.

Her grandfather built a small house behind her family’s main house and involved her
in the process.

“And I just thought that was really fascinating,” she said about her introduction to the
world of science and math.

Corob is also interested in the automotive industry and wants to explore other
engineering options. So far, though, Airbus has been keeping her busy. She did an
internship as a senior in high school shadowing people at the Final Assembly Line.

“I’ve interned for the past two summers at the Airbus Design Center,” she said.
Jane Nicholes
Underwritten in part by: