Strengthening NCAR’s Technic...

Strengthening NCAR’s Technical Workforce through the Technical Internship Program (TIP)

While scientists are critical drivers of scientific discovery, other actors contribute to the testing of theories that lead up to research breakthroughs. The expertise of engineers, technicians, and data specialists, among others, plays a role in advancing the frontiers of human knowledge. Successful research hinges on the contributions of the entire scientific team, including those creating the tools, collecting data, developing software, keeping observing platforms running, and gathering and validating observations and measurements.

Leaders in the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s (NCAR) Earth Observing Laboratory (EOL), wanting to develop and grow their future work force, recognized that many of these experts do not immediately think of science as a career option. Hoping to introduce its next-generation research workforce to opportunities in the atmospheric and Earth sciences, the laboratory recently created a new internship program for students enrolled in 2-year technical colleges. 

“While many internship opportunities exist at NCAR and UCAR (NCAR’s managing body), students from 2-year technical colleges had been left out of the mix, so we developed the Technical Internship Program (TIP),” says Mike Daniels, manager of EOL's Computing, Data and Software Facility, who headed the internship effort along with Wen-Chau Lee, a senior scientist and head of EOL’s Remote Sensing Facility. “We felt this was an important population to target because of EOL’s high dependency on technical specialists who ensure that our science community’s research needs get met efficiently. People in this category can come from diverse backgrounds and are often challenged by economic and/or cultural situations that hinder them from pursuing 4-year degrees. ”

Alison Rockwell, EOL’s outreach and education coordinator, who led the efforts to meet on-site with the technical colleges and students, emphasizes EOL’s need for a workforce that has a wide range of skill sets and backgrounds. The TIP particularly targeted non-science majors so as to develop a team with diverse capabilities.

“We focused on six different 2-year colleges in the Denver area, arranging face-to-face meetings with career advisors to establish initial connections,” explains Rockwell. “We subsequently visited several colleges in 2012, presenting an overview of the work that EOL does, in the process telling more than 250 students about the internship opportunity.”

As a result of these efforts, EOL hired two interns, Jesse Stillwell from ITT Tech and Chris Chacon from Front Range Community College. Stillwell, working with EOL’s In-Situ Sensing Facility, built a large number of measurement systems and sampling modules for the Shallow Cold Pool field project that took place in northeastern Colorado, where he worked closely with EOL mentors Steve Semmer and Chris Golubieski. Stillwell assembled, soldered, and built dozens of modules in preparation for deployment. This required learning new skills in wiring, surface-mount technology, plastics and testing procedures. His EOL experiences led Stillwell to pursue a position as an electronics technician at the end of his internship.

“The experience I got from TIP was amazing. I learned surface-mount soldering plus many other things, and the experience helped me figure out what I want in my career, ” says Stillwell.

Chacon worked as a computing help desk assistant, learning how to support a variety of systems, from Macs to PCs to Linux workstations in a scientific research environment. He also traveled as part of the field support team during the Deep Convective Clouds and Chemistry experiment in Salina, Kansas. Today, Chacon continues as an NCAR student assistant. This position requires full-time enrollment in a 4-year college; as a result, Chacon is enrolled at Metro State University, pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in computer information systems, while continuing his part-time position at EOL.

“Chris Chacon follows in some big footsteps. Not only is Mike Daniels one of the leaders of the TIP program, he and his siblings were the first in their family to get a college degree. Mike has worked his way up the EOL ranks, gaining new skills and expertise at each stage of his career to reach his current position as manager of one of the laboratory’s six facilities,” says Rockwell. “For many of the perspective students, Mike offers a view on the potential that a career in science and with EOL offers.”

TIP internship applications will be accepted from March 1st through April 15th, 2013. See http://www.eol.ucar.edu/tip for more information.