Timing can be everything. And the success of three young graduates of Indian Hills Community College (IHCC) indicates its Laser and Optic Technology program is in sync with the ways teenagers think at key decision points.
Davian K. Tevault, Tyler Dumbacher, and Ryland Plummer landed in the introductory laser course at Columbia Area Career Center because it had openings, and other courses were already full when they scheduled their sophomore classes. They became friends while taking classes and residing in dorms at IHCC. After graduating with associate degrees in 2014, the three moved together to take jobs as laser-electro-optic technicians at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.
The scheduling alignment was serendipitous for three guys who at the time had no postsecondary plans. However, the dual enrollment photonics program at their high school and IHCC's College Immersion Experience for juniors and seniors are the quite intentional results of National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education grants to the Midwest Photonics Education Center (MPEC) at IHCC and the National Center for Optics and Photonics Education (OP-TEC).
"I personally like the ATE programs because I know what the standard is. I know how the oversight from the National Science Foundation is working," said G. Ron Darbee, superintendent of the Engineering Division of Laser Systems and Operations at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).
Darbee talked about his recruitment of graduates from IHCC and other programs affiliated with the ATE centers during an interview at the 2016 ATE Principal Investigators Conference in Washington, D.C.
Darbee likes the "quality of the curriculum, interaction with employers" of the NSF-ATE photonics programs, which focus on the physical science of light including laser and optic technologies. "We understand if they graduate from one of these program, they've got the basic fundamentals." Since 2013 alone, LLNL has hired 11 graduates of IHCC's laser and optics technology program.
Darbee was involved in the national lab's decision to employ Tevault, Dumbacher, and Plummer, whom he calls "the three amigos."
Dual Credit Photonics Courses Provide First Step
The ATE centers' industry-related curriculum and the professional development for high school and college faculty meant that the Introduction to Lasers course that Plummer, Tevault, and Dumbacher landed in was engaging and challenging in ways that encouraged them to sign up for the next course.
"Once I was in the class and was taking it, I found I really enjoyed the science behind it; that's how it led me to continuing on," Ryland Plummer said, adding, "I really enjoy the math and science behind it; the physics."
Tevault said, "I really liked the challenge. It was a lot different than a lot of other students were taking in high school. It was overall just interesting, cool subject to study."
Campus Visits Nudged Their Thinking
The well-timed College Immersion Experience at IHCC led the three and several other students from their high school to enroll full time at the college's laser and optics technology program right after high school.
During the two-day College Immersion Experience the high school students learn about educational and career opportunities, laser club activities, financial aid. They spend time in the college's photonics lab and tour the entire campus. MPEC Director Greg Kepner wrote in an email, "The highlight of the experience is when they perform laboratory activities in the laser lab along with second-year college students."
"In high school I had no idea what I wanted to do," Dumbacher said. As a junior he took the overnight trip to IHCC only because it was two days off school. By the time of the trip his senior year he was more focused. He paid closer attention when the faculty talked about the types of work and the potential to earn $37,000 to $62,000 a year for entry-level jobs with an associate degree.
To Dumbacher applying to a bunch of four-year colleges seemed an “annoying process.” Continuing to take photonics courses seemed like a better financial opportunity with a simpler enrollment process.
Tevault said the job placement information caught his attention. "For me the appeal was mostly the job placement that they advertised—that if you want a job you'll get a job right out of college ... my sole purpose of going to college was to continue my life toward that next step."
Other than one uncle, Tevault is the only member of his family with a college degree. His mom helped as much as possible, but he took out loans for the majority of the out-of-pocket costs for tuition, dormitory, and fees at IHCC. The return on his investment has been quick and satisfying.
"Actually, I paid off all my school bills within 10 months of graduating. So I consider that quite the feat in terms of the pay that you receive and the amount of work you put into it to actually get that pay," Tevault said.
Many Opportunities to Meet Employers
All three young men talked about the importance of meeting employers on campus, attending SPIE Photonics West Conference in San Francisco, and touring LLNL with IHCC faculty and students.
Tevault said at the conference "We were out there kind of trying to sell our name; pretty much trying to find a job. I was able to find a job that way.
"Also our instructor [Frank Reed] had a week or two of employers coming out, interviewing us, kind of doing presentations on what the company is all about, what kind of work it entails, They were trying to scout out people from our school. We're really kind of put out there and it was up to us if we really wanted it or not. "
Kepner and Reed estimate the program interacts with 90 employers. Its relationship with LLNL is the longest; it began in 1989.
Good Work Ethic Emphasized
All three said they were well prepared. In addition to the solid academic foundation and understanding of the technology, Dumbacher said that the most valuable part of the program may have been its emphasis on practical personal skills.
He said, "Reed drilled a good work ethic and common sense." He emphasized showing up on time, and not being absent. He gave lab assignments with deadlines to mimic what it's like in a real lab.
Advice to Indecisive Teens
Plummer said working as a laser technician is a "great job." He likes collaborating with the research scientists; they discuss the design of their experiments with him. He offers "input along with helping them set up and build their projects."
Tevault recommends laser and photonics careers and offers this advice: "It's all about your motivation and your drive. It's going to be as complicated as you make it. You can really be successful, if you just show up, try to grasp as much knowledge as you can, and you'll be fine."