Spirit layers on the learning for SL engineering students 

Spirit layers on the learning for SL engineering students 

South Lenoir High School students, from left, Parker White, Matthew Heath and Lydia Walston, got a feel for what a composite mechanic does during the six weeks they and their classmates in the Project Lead the Way engineering program spent as interns with Spirit AeroSystems this past spring. Submitted photo

The Spirit AeroSystems North Carolina manufacturing facility in Kinston produces the advanced composites that its workers shape into airplane fuselages and other aero-structures by layering and bonding. In a way, the same technique was at work during a mini-internship program Spirit launched with South Lenoir High School this past spring.

In six weeks of hands-on instruction, engineering students in the school’s Project Lead the Way program learned the basics of the manufacturing process — from why safety matters to why there’s no substitute for precision — and learned something about how Spirit makes and uses composites.

Along the way, they also layered on some learning about how a composite mechanic spends his or her day, how science and math figure into the work and what a career in engineering might look like.

The bond was this: Meeting and talking with people who work for Spirit — including North Carolina Vice President and General Manager David Miller, an engineer turned executive — and exiting the internship knowing a lot more about one of Lenoir County’s leading employers than they knew going in.

“I feel I’ve learned a lot about the different fields of engineering and what they do here at Spirit,” sophomore Matthew Heath said. “It seems pretty cool.”

The program, the first of its kind in Lenoir County, grew out of Spirit’s on-going desire to “give back to the communities in which we do business,” as Miller put it, and make a connection between the science, technology, engineering and math skills inherent in its operation and the STEM instruction going on in LCPS classrooms.

Kevin Sharpe, senior manager for operations engineering at the Kinston facility, developed the project with an eye toward familiarizing students with both the world of work and the work at Spirit.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the kids to see what we do here at Spirit,” Sharpe said during one of the sessions with students. “We like to try to put our name out there so they can get to know who we are.”

Sharpe connected with the school district through Amy Jones, director of high school education and CTE. Project Lead the Way is a CTE (Career and Technical Education) program and its engineering emphasis made it a natural for the Spirit partnership.

“It’s important for our students to see how what they do in the classroom translates into an actual career,” Jones said. “This project is important for us so the students know there are opportunities in engineering for them beyond the classroom and that there are opportunities for them to live and work in Lenoir County.”

The students did some work for the project in their class with teacher Gwen Boney but received the most intense instruction during their weekly meetings at the Spirit Composite Center of Excellence, near the Global TransPark, with Janos Virag, aerospace manufacturing instruction with Lenoir Community College. LCC and Virag operate a three-week orientation class for new Spirit hires at the center that, within limits, was mirrored in the internship.

“This is a basic introduction to what we do with composite materials,” Sharpe explained. “The idea is to show the kids how composite materials work. They did the prep work, they cleaned the tool, then they put down the composites for this layup in different sequences. The way you sequence composite material determines the strength of the material.”

About mid-way through the internship program, Miller, the Spirit vice president and general manager, dropped by a session to check on the progress. The students, working in teams of three or four, were in the middle of a lay-up, affixing thin sheets of material to a concave form, referred to as “the tool.”

 “How are the projects going?” Miller asked.

David Miller, North Carolina vice president and general manager of the Spirit AeroSystems manufacturing facility in Kinston, talked to South Lenoir students about his career in engineering and management during one of the weekly training sessions.

Sharpe filled the space created by the students’ reticence. “They actually measured the tool and did a modeling of the tool at school. We’re going to do lay-ups with different sequences just to show them the difference between the strengths.”

Miller seemed impressed, told the students he was and strengthened the bond by sharing some of his background – a Greensboro native educated as an engineer who, after about 18 months in that role with a telecommunications company, went into management, returned to college to get his MBA and eventually ended up working for Spirit at its Wichita, Kansas, headquarters. He’s been leading the Kinston facility since July.

“There are multiple paths to get you where you want to be for those long-term goals. Sometimes we just have to find our way,” he told the students. “If you had asked me when I went into college if I wanted to run sites and build airplanes, that would have been the furthest thing from my mind.”

Miller sees the real-world learning that the spirit-LCPS partnership provided as “super valuable” for a couple of reasons.

For students, they gained valuable experience — “Your experience in aviation manufacturing starts right now,” Virag, the instruction, told them while they worked — and got a look inside modern manufacturing, not the dirty, loud environment of yesterday but a workplace that’s clean, high-tech and cutting edge.

For manufacturers like Spirit, introducing high school and college students to the process and the environment is an investment in the future. “It helps build a pipeline of talent,” Miller said, “a talent pipeline of folks that will come out and work for Spirit, who will build airplanes, be engineers, be leaders. This is where that begins.”

This is where it began too for LCPS, for a more meaningful way to connect the classroom to the workplace, a way Amy Jones hopes to pursue further with Spirit and with other local manufacturers. 

“This has been an amazing opportunity for our students,” the district director said. “It’s something we haven’t done in this way before. If we could expand this program — this type of mini-internship where students can spend multiple sessions with an employer rather than a one-time event in job shadowing — it would be helpful for our students and would be helpful for the employers in our area to see what kind of workforce could be available to them.”

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