by Mr. C. Stephen Cornelius
It’s called “building the bench,” and it is more than a sports metaphor. It is a way of doing business. It is at the center of what the missile enterprise does to support Soldiers in the field and in the future. It is critical that young engineers and scientists have the opportunity to learn their craft from established experts early in their careers so that they can make important discoveries and contributions to the Army.
What they learn is not taught in school—they must learn by doing.
The U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) Redstone Arsenal, AL, employs a number of programs to recruit, train and retain world-class engineers and scientists.
The Pathways Internship Program and summer hiring provide students in high schools, colleges, trade schools and otherqualifying educational institutions with paid opportunities to work at AMRDEC while completing their education. Through dynamic team structures and mentoring, information exchange and employee development are encouraged across varying ages, years and types of experience, and organizational divisions.
Below are stories of just a few of the young employees who are having a direct impact on the AMRDEC mission to deliver collaborative and innovative technical capabilities for responsive and cost-effective research, product development and life-cycle systems engineering solutions to equip the warfighter with the best technology today and tomorrow.
‘A WHOLE NEW WORLD’
Nathan Mathis, a graduate of Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, is working as an aerospace engineer in propulsion technology for AMRDEC’s Weapons Development and Integration Directorate (WDI) in Huntsville, AL.
GOOD TO GREAT
Mathis had just earned his master’s degree in chemical engineering with an emphasis in environmental engineering, and was glad to get the job. However, his work at the university did not involve propulsion engineering. His thesis was about laboratory work conducted on samples of solid municipal waste.
“The only thing I really knew how to propel was my car via the gas pedal,” Mathis said. “Making fire come out the back end of a rocket motor was a whole new world.”
One day, Dr. Jay Lilley, chief of propulsion technology, stopped by Mathis’ desk. “During the course of our conversation,he said, ‘We’re going to make you a propulsion engineer.’ I don’t remember anything else he said during that talk. All I can recall thinking was, ‘Well, I guess that makes it official,’ ” Mathis said.
Making good engineers into great ones is at the heart of the work that WDI does. It is as important as supporting Soldiers in the field because, in a sense, it is the same thing. Without having the right people help to grow the skills and expertise of younger people, supporting the Soldier into the future is impossible. As rewarding as WDI’s day-to-day work can be, it is even more rewarding to see the dedicationand spirit in new engineers who grow and mature and then use their own expertise to serve their nation and help others achieve their engineering goals.
“Academic knowledge without firsthand experience in this business is of limited value. Until you put yourself on the line and test the limits of your abilities, you really can’t understand how much you know or don’t know,” Mathis explained.
WDI leadership saw a need to empower new employees and give them a unique opportunity in the propulsion field. As a
FROM SUMMER HIRE TO FULL-TIME EMPLOYEE
consequence, WDI developed a program to mentor and develop young engineers and scientists and to grow future experts and mentors.
The program began by answering one basic question: How does a newly graduated person gain the knowledge and experience necessary to lead complex design and development programs and evolve into one of the nation’s top defense scientists or engineers?
The answer, in part, is to foster an atmosphere in which the workforce, young or not so young, can take smart risks, learn and succeed without fear of retribution or the untimely end of a career. Another part of the answer is to put young engineers—with appropriatebackup and mentoring—into a situation that takes them out of their comfort zones and makes them stretch their limits.
Mathis and many other young engineers exemplify the kind of engagement with mentors that makes both them and the program succeed.
Mathis was tasked to lead the development of the propulsion system for an active protection system program designed to protect lightly armored vehicles from attack. His team consisted of both young engineers and senior propulsion experts.
“It was very encouraging to have literally hundreds of years of propulsionengineering expertise to support us and our work,” Mathis added.
“I’ve learned a lot in the four-plus years since graduation. A formal college education in propulsion could never have equaled the hands-on experience the Army has provided,” he said.
Patrick Taylor worked as a summer hire in the propulsion division at WDI while completing his doctoral work in electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University. Later, the newly minted Dr. Taylor joined the team full time.
One of the first things Taylor did was develop a lab where he could conduct
BRIDGE TO A CAREER
his research in electric propulsion systems for flight. That lab has enabled Taylor to focus on cutting-edge battery and motor technologies, trying to get the maximum energy possible for the lowest weight, which is a real point of pride for the scientist.
“Starting up from scratch, I’ve been able to develop a laboratory now that gives me freedom to do a lot of different types of work for a lot of different people here, both on the base itself as well as for the Army overall, in electric propulsion.”
He also serves as an ambassador for the Army’s education outreach program, mentoring students in AMRDEC co-op and summer programs.
“I was in their shoes at one point,” he said. “It doesn’t take a lot to push a student toward an interest in something. I know I’ve had experiences like that from elementary school on up that have shaped how I have thought about things. I try my best to give back in those sorts of ways.”
Kristin Spencer, former All-American outfielder with the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) softball team and the university’s Top Engineering Student in 2006, graduated with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and began working in the WDI’s Composite Structures Laboratory.
One of her first projects was to look at ways to reduce the weight of Army aviation platforms.
By using carbon fiber structures, Spencer and her team were able to save 32 pounds as they designed and built a reduced-weight replacement for the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior’s M279 Hellfire missile launcher.
This weight savings gives aviators more planning options and greater flexibility to complete their missions.
“It’s exciting, knowing the work we do directly affects the Soldiers and I can help to make their jobs easier,” said Spencer.
In 2009, Christina Brantley was named an Army science, technology, engineering and math role model.
The Huntsville native graduated with honors from the Madison Academy, went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering at Tennessee State University and is pursuing a master’s in physics from Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University.
While attending the Madison Academy, Brantley began her career in scientific research and engineering, participating in the Science and Engineering Apprentice Program (SEAP) at AMRDEC.
“Being involved as a student in the SEAP program here at AMRDEC was an unforgettable experience. The SEAP program was a direct bridge. It gave me an opportunity to apply my math and science ability to actual engineering applications. The engineers here gave me an opportunity for hands-on work in circuits, sensor design and other military applications. I was inspired to become an engineer by many people in my life, including my parents and fellow engineers that I met while I worked in the SEAP program at AMRDEC,” said Brantley.
Brian Cook was majoring in mechanical engineering at Tennessee Technological University. He met his future function chief, Mike Morrison, during a career fair.
“I went up there with Gene Henderson, another Tennessee Tech graduate, and we had a booth. Brian came over to talk with us and then he came back to talk. That was impressive,” said Morrison, chief of the Energetic Materials Function.
AMRDEC hired Cook as a co-op student in 2010. For his senior design project at Tennessee Tech, Cook led a group of six people whom AMRDEC asked to develop a method for applying liners to rocket motor cases and improve operations in the lab. The result of their effort was a machine that has made work more efficient and more effective,mechanizing a process that previously had been done by hand.
Supporting Cook’s senior design project was Darrell Simonds, a WDI technician who has been working with large and small rocket motors on Redstone Arsenal since 1978.
Simonds’ experience with similar lining systems was instrumental in the team’s success, said Cook.
Cook’s machine gives his WDI team reproducibility for rocket motor demonstrations. Hand-painting the lining into rocket motor cases can result in inconsistencies in liner thickness, thus changing the amount of propellant that is loaded into the rocket motor casings and adversely affecting tests, said Morrison.
Simonds added that the new capability helps tremendously in terms of time saved. “Cook is up to speed now and learning more every day. They teach him something and off he goes. He is an asset to the team,” said Simonds.
Cook is now an intern in the Pathways Program and is working on his master’s degree.
Each year, WDI runs a contest called Rocket Wars. Student hires design and build a boost-sustained rocket motor within certain parameters for thrust and pressures. Then they compete against each other as teams. While working, they have fun, but more importantly they get valuable hands-on experience.
Justice Manson, a third-year summer hire majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Alabama, served as a team leader during the 2010 Rocket Wars competition. His teammates included Corey Davis, majoring in aerospace engineering at Purdue University; Drew Johnson, majoring in mechanical engineering at UAH; Jerald Fayorsey, majoring in aerospace engineering at Tuskegee University; and Faith Ryder, majoring in electrical engineering at UAH.
After a briefing from Lilley, the propulsion technology chief, during which they received guidance and numerics on what to build, Manson and his team got to work.
“At Propulsion, you see things happen. You do the numbers, you do the drawings and the designs, you do the builds, then you see the results,” said Ryder.
In all of WDI’s mission areas, the goal is to do real, hands-on engineering and science in-house. With the tools,
For more information, contact Merv Brokke, AMRDEC public affairs officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org
facilities and mission, WDI enables young employees to go all the way from paper design through fabrication and analysis, to test and data reduction for all types of tactical propulsion systems. In using these in-house assets for hardware- centric programs, WDI is growing the next generation of experts from our young engineers and scientists.
On a personal note, I am proud of the WDI Team and enthusiastic about how they have owned this program. Our leadership has taken the program to the next level and is recruiting and developing future engineers. Needless to say, I am even more proud of the young engineers who have and will accept the challenges and take those first big steps in their careers.
or 256-313-5742; or go to http://www.redstone.army.mil/amrdec/.Note: The author would like to thank Mervin Brokke, Heather R. Smith and Randy Siniard for their contributions to this article.
MR. C. STEPHEN CORNELIUS is director of WDI at Redstone Arsenal. He holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Alabama, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from UAH and an M.B.A. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cornelius is Level III certified in systems planning, research, development and engineering (SPRDE) – systems engineering and Level II certified in SPRDE – program systems engineer. He is also a member of the U.S. Army Acquisition Corps. Cornelius was selected for the Senior Executive Service in April 2009.