Wanting to be an astronaut is a common ambition among schoolchildren. Rarer is the child who dreams of becoming a control-valve maintenance technician, and as many aerospace professionals approach retirement age, Florida is using online learning in an effort to generate interest in the industry's less glamorous careers.
RWD Technologies Inc. of Baltimore sold $259,000 worth of technology to deliver aerospace lessons to adults and students throughout Florida for the past 10 months through an initiative that is expected to be expanded nationally.
Sean O'Keefe, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told Congress earlier this month that 25 percent of the agency's scientists and engineers will be eligible for retirement within five years and that enrollment in aerospace engineering graduate programs dropped 16 percent from 1992 to 2000.
"This is just me speculating, but if you look at the last five years or so, there has been a boom in the high-tech industry, and it has been hard for the federal government to compete," said Tom Cavanagh, director of the Florida Space Research Institute (FSRI), an organization created by the state in 1999 to push for cooperation between companies and universities.
Last spring, the institute launched an e-learning program designed to improve the skills of current aerospace workers and to entice others to enter the field, a $4.5 billion industry in the state. It started with about $1.5 million from a Florida workforce organization and $500,000 from NASA , and a mission to reach a large number of people while keeping costs low.
"The whole purpose of this system was to make sure there is a transfer of knowledge," said Jeffrey W. Wendel, president of the applied technologies solutions unit of RWD. The target audience is "people who are in the industry and want to acquire a new skill or people who are just flat out interested in the space industry. High school students thinking about pursuing this as a career or people in one type of business -- like telecom engineers -- who want to apply it in a different environment."
The program now makes more than 35 hours of space-related lessons available on the Web. The FSRI gave most of the first 1,400 people who registered to take courses a free membership. Now the organization charges $25 a year plus an additional fee for each lesson.
The most basic courses, geared to high school and college students, cover the history of major astronomers and general scientific concepts such as gravity and inertia. Cavanagh said the response from teachers using the portal as part of their science lessons surprised the organization's administrators.
"What really impressed me was the way the course content really captured the operational content, as opposed to the theoretical," said Edward A. Harkins, a program manager at General Dynamics who has a master's degree in space systems engineering. "That level of interaction provided an independent way to go through and learn the material. It provided some 'hands-on material.' "
Harkins, who took about 20 of the courses to help program developers evaluate the material, said he thinks even seasoned employees will benefit from courses outside their specialty.
Courses targeting people with some training in science or engineering who are trying to enter the field cover more specific aerospace material. Course titles include "Characteristics of Logic Circuits," "Understanding Instrument Calibration Procedures" and "Unmanned Exploratory Spacecraft: Planetary and Lunar Exploration."
Students do not receive academic credits or certifications for completing courses. The goal, Cavanagh said, is to help students expand their resumes and allow them to make contact with industry insiders. While RWD hosts the program, the content was developed in conjunction with NASA, and many of the courses promote collaboration with other students and industry professionals.
The institute is now launching a national marketing campaign and adding more courses to its portal. The appeal of online learning, Cavanagh said, is that an unlimited number of students can enroll without sharply increasing the program's overhead.
"We're a small, nonprofit research institute. Our mission really is to spread space science research to the widest possible group," said Cavanagh. "We don't have to make money; we just have to cover our costs."