Story by Scott Curtis on 08/14/2019NAVAL STATION MAYPORT, Fla - A career in engineering can be daunting; regardless of how well you can see. To do well in such a demanding career requires the dedication to earn an advanced degree involving intense class work and research. Another important consideration for any potential engineer is to examine what the different job prospects will be available after all of that hard work. For someone with vision loss, it's critical.
Cheri Undheim is a Vision Rehabilitation Case Manager/Care Specialist with Florida State College at Jacksonville's (FSCJ) Vision Education & Rehabilitation Center (VERC). Through specialized training, her students learn the necessary skills to gain independence and live productive lives. Essential to independence is preparing them for campus life and expanding what they think their capabilities are.
In the spring, three of Undheim's students expressed an interest in becoming engineers. "At first I wasn't sure how it was going to work. I know there are a lot visually impaired people working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers so it's very possible, so I tried to come up with something the students would enjoy," Undheim said. Visually impaired students require a range of accommodations to be able to keep up with their peers in STEM.
Undheim's husband is the Waterfront Operations Manager at Southeast Regional Maintenance Center (SERMC) here, so the two teamed up and came up with a two-week internship for three visually impaired high school students that concluded here on August 1. SERMC provides maintenance and technical support to Navy ships operating in the 4th Fleet area of responsibility.
"I fully support high school student's access to STEM learning opportunities, specifically as it relates to Naval Engineering," said Capt. John Lobuono, Commanding Officer of SERMC. "I hope all three students feel more confident in their capabilities after their internship it's absolutely possible for someone with vision loss or blindness to fully participate in STEM fields. The low representation of visually impaired people in the STEM workforce is likely discouraging to visually impaired students in high school who are beginning to think about college and career pathways, and I'm proud we were able to help our community through this experience," Lobuono added.
All three have differing levels of vision loss: one student is totally blind, and is only able to perceive light perception. Noah Prinz can see out of the sides of his eyes and has learned to use magnification and his peripheral vision to read. Derlim Cotte is entering her senior year of high school and has Stargardt disease, a genetic macular degenerative condition where her vision will decrease as she ages. Presently Cotte has difficulty seeing in the dark and in bright light. VERC teaches the students how to find solutions so they can lead productive lives and SERMC provided the workplace for the experience.
"The intent was to quickly familiarize them with their responsibilities and let them experience what a typical Engineering workday is like. We assigned several Engineering Service Requests (ESR) to resolve," said SERMC's Deputy Chief Engineer, Avail Support and Planning Division Head, Tom Marcellino. The ESR process exists to provide a uniform practice to obtain engineering/technical assistance that emerge during the repair, maintenance and modernization of ships.
"This exercise introduced them to the products, along with the research and problem solving processes, of the Engineering Department. They eagerly took on the challenges, defined the problems, formulated their solutions, and submitted their final work to their supervisors. All of the students did a great job explaining their decisions," Marcellino said.
They received a general description of Engineering's business structure, abbreviated Technical Authority training and several fundamental Engineering technical publications that drive construction and maintenance. Operational Security awareness and its seriousness were emphasized. All three were amazed at the sheer volume of technical and operational information required to conduct work on Navy ships.
"A lot of people think engineers work with robots and never sit behind a desk, but in order to make a decision about a career, you really need to know what it is. You need to get beyond the glorified version of an engineer because yes you'll get the glorified version, but you also get everything else like all the paperwork, reading and meetings," Cotte said.
"We want our students to be job ready, and they'll use SERMC as work experience on their resume and they are being encouraged to talk to the engineers and the Sailors and networking with them to see if they can use them as they get into college and they are trying to decide a career path. They now have someone who actually works in that field that they can bounce ideas off," Undheim added.
For Prinz, the best part was experiencing how the Navy works "behind the scenes." "I didn't expect so many engineers to be involved in repairing and maintaining ships, and the production area is amazing. I really liked talking with the individual representatives and learning about what they do, and their specific roles and responsibilities," Prinz said.
"When we toured the individual shops, the kids all found different things interesting, but for them to be able to talk to the sailors and realize they're not much older than they are and perform hands-on work with many different responsibilities blew a lot of their minds," Undheim said.
"Although all of these scientists have different visual acuities, they did not let their visual impairments stand in the way of becoming successful in their chosen fields. Each of these talented individuals also has a sense of humor, and it was a pleasure discussing their careers with them," said Marcellino.
"It's been an incredible experience for the kids. The kids are so excited and amazed at how many different options they have available. It may be more difficult for them to be electrical engineers, but there are systems engineers and all kinds of different engineers that they learned about while at SERMC," Undheim concluded.
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