To ensure that the expertise of senior engineers isn't lost when they retire, NASA has enlisted the help of Newport News, Va.,-based custom training solutions provider Remtech Services, a division of Ciber, a system integration consultancy in Greenwood Village, Colo. The provider will work with NASA to interview 15 engineers to capture workplace knowledge and create courses for the junior members of their field to learn from, says Bob Baxter, Ph.D., a vice president with Remtech.
Participating engineers were culled from the ranks of NASA's Engineering and Safety Center (NESC), an arm of the space agency created in the wake of the Challenger shuttle disaster to prevent future accidents through technical research and analysis. Designated NASA Discipline Experts (NDEs), each has been identified by NASA as an expert in a particular field of study such as propulsion or on shuttle life support. A Remtech project manager and a specialist with engineering training organize and conduct each of the interviews, which occur in two stages, says Baxter.
The first interviews, which are taped by audio and transcribed, are conducted over the phone, with a more formal, video taped exchange following. "We're trying to capture the lifelong experience of these folks while they're still in government," Baxter explains.
Remtech won the outsourcing contract to manage and implement the project because they seemed willing to commit the greatest amount of resources to eliciting information from interview subjects, says Clinton Cragg, a principal engineer at NESC. He says his team considered proposals from other training providers, both civilian as well as governmental, but they were impressed with Remtech's offer to provide a trained engineering specialist to assist with each interview to make sure the necessary questions were asked and the information assimilated properly afterward. "We needed someone who would be able to draw information from these senior guys that would be locked up in their brain, but not clear to other people," he stresses.
Once caught on audio and video, testimonials are turned into two- to three-day courses held at universities, such as Alabama A&M University, the University of Houston and University of Maryland, that offer graduate programs in aeronautics. "There's sort of an archival purpose that becomes a permanent reference," says Baxter. Eventually the audio and video of the testimonials, edited for security purposes, will be available online, he explains, along with interactive exercises on the topics the expert has discussed.
Given President Bush's push to return to the moon and to eventually get to Mars, capturing knowledge from engineers that may have worked on the first lunar mission is critical, says Cragg.
"There are a lot of aspects learned in Apollo that may be applicable to this new endeavor," he notes.
The project, which began in July with the first taped interview, will have a timetable of two years, the duration of the 15 participating engineers' contract with the NESC to serve as NDEs, says Baxter. Every eight weeks, a new interview cycle begins, with another expert's testimony caught on tape. If the project proves a success, interviews will begin for a new group of 15 senior engineers once the current cycle is completed.
The courses will each receive an in-depth evaluation, says Marcia Gibson, Ed.D., the program director of the NESC Academy, the organization within NESC that is putting together the classes.
For instance, students will receive a questionnaire gauging their expectations before the class begins, and another questionnaire after the course is completed, measuring whether it was everything they'd hoped it would be. This qualitative feedback is supported by a test that they are also given immediately after the course. Six weeks after the course is finished, additional questionnaires will be sent to students and their supervisors to see if they were able to apply the lessons learned in the classroom to their daily work.
There are 35 slots open for each course with priority given to NASA engineers that have been on the job for two to three years, or fresh out of college, says Gibson. Second priority is reserved for young engineers that contract with NASA. Whatever openings are available after these two primary groups of students are enrolled are left for the university's graduate students. Enthusiasm for the classes is already apparent, Gibson says, pointing out that the first class on environmental control systems had 75 applicants.
The post-class questionnaires are encouraging, she notes. "Students are so excited NASA is doing this," says Gibson, "and that they have the opportunity to attend, talk to these guys and get information from them first hand."—M.W.