Filling the pipeline

Advanced Learning Environment

The Florida Space Research Institute (FSRI) is expanding an e-learning program designed to help aerospace workers advance in their careers and encourage younger students to consider careers in that industry.

FSRI's Advanced Learning Environment initiative was created by a partnership between NASA and Florida as a way to provide additional training to workers in the aerospace industry and academia. FSRI took the basic e-learning building blocks developed by NASA's Langley Research Center and applied them to the aerospace industry in Florida, said Pamela Biegert, chief of the Education Programs and University Research Division at the Kennedy Space Center.

More than 1,400 Florida residents have registered to access the program's training tools for free for a year — an effort that has proven successful so far, said Tom Cavanagh, program manager for the Advanced Learning Environment. Many of the students are from the Kennedy Space Center and from the aerospace industry, but high school and college students and faculty members are also well represented, he said.

The next step is to enhance the Advanced Learning Environment program and expand it beyond Florida. Officials plan to charge a user fee in the future to cover program costs, not to make a profit, according to Cavanagh.

The program's timing couldn't be better. NASA officials are predicting that close to 50 percent of the agency's workforce will be eligible to retire in the next three to five years. "We need a backfill of engineers to take on those technology jobs," but the number of people going into those fields is declining, Biegert said.

The United States overall is "not producing scientists and engineers that we need to remain globally competitive," she said, adding that programs such as the Advanced Learning Environment can help fill the workforce pipeline.

"Anything that you can put out there that gets students interested in science and math and technology so that they hopefully study those fields and continue to study those in higher education is something NASA is interested in," Biegert said.

The program offers about 50 short, self-paced modules encompassing more than 30 hours of Web-based training, most of which is intended for aerospace technicians. The program is open to anyone, including federal and state government employees, Cavanagh said.

The content, which FSRI is expanding, includes a two-hour course called Space Science: History and Fundamentals; an eight-hour course called Space Science: Current and Future Applications; and a five-hour program on digital electronics.

FSRI will receive $35,000 from NASA via the Florida Space Grant Consortium to develop an online mentoring pilot program scheduled to launch in January 2003. The program will pair high school and college students with aerospace industry representatives. The goal is to "inspire kids to be the next generation of aerospace workers," Cavanagh said.

An additional $75,000 from the University of Central Florida's Hydrogen Research and Applications Center, which is sponsored by NASA, will be used to build new course modules that cover cryogenics training.

The Advanced Learning Environment involves other partners, such as Latitude360, a division of RWD Technologies Inc., which provided the infrastructure for the program via its University360 e-learning suite of products. The advantage of the software is that it is a "collection of tightly integrated applications" that allows FSRI to add additional capabilities as needed, said Laurence Myers, principal engineer at Latitude360.

FSRI officials chose to have the company host the Advanced Learning Environment site instead of managing it themselves, Myers said. This arrangement relieves the institute of having to manage the back-end hardware and infrastructure, which often require additional resources, he said.

Also, system performance is not an issue. "Because [the e-learning site] is hosted out of one of the top-tier data centers, we have true broadband connectivity all around the world," Myers said.


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