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UT Air Force ROTC STEM Cadets Receive ACE Manufacturing Training

photo of ROTC cadets looking at CNC machineryBy Christine Schmitz

Eleven University of Tennessee Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) STEM cadets, under the command of Lt Col William A. Estep, are currently participating in a 10-week manufacturing training program led by MABE Professor and ORNL Joint Faculty Tony Schmitz.

Currently in its second year, Schmitz said this effort originated in 2020 with a grant from the Office of Naval Research for a pilot program titled “Cybersecurity, data analytics, and advanced manufacturing for the modern soldier: An integrated ROTC research and training program”. This semester, the cadets are leveraging the pilot effort and content prepared for America’s Cutting Edge (ACE), the highly successful CNC machining and metrology training program developed by Schmitz and IACMI-The Composites Institute with funding from the Department of Defense Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment program.

Designed to teach essential machining and measurement skills and address the nation’s growing manufacturing workforce gap, ACE is a no-cost program with modules that provide training in CNC machining and metrology (measurement). The CNC machining training consists of a six-hour online curriculum and an optional in-person opportunity. The metrology training consists of a two-hour online curriculum.

“The ACE Manufacturing Training Program provides AFROTC cadets a unique educational opportunity that aligns with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Brown’s, Accelerate Change or Lose vision,” said Lt Col Estep. “General Brown stated, ‘The world we live in is driven by rapidly changing technology and an environment that includes aggressive and capable global competitors.’”

Estep continued, “AFROTC’s mission is to ‘recruit, assess, educate, train, experience, develop and retain Airmen…with the attributes to compete, deter, and win in the high-end fight.’ ACE provides us with a mechanism to enhance universal skill sets to train next generation Air and Space Force leaders.”

Schmitz stated he provides this AFROTC educational partnership because it is relevant “for our future military leaders, even if they haven’t studied manufacturing directly, to have exposure to the capabilities of manufacturing processes that produce the vehicles and equipment that support the DOD mission. This awareness will enable informed decision making throughout their careers.” This aligns with the goals for the new Southeastern Advanced Machine Tools Network (SEAMTN, “see mountain”) established by the 2021 DOD Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program. This UT-led consortium is also directed by Schmitz and provides training efforts to grow the manufacturing workforce.

AFROTC Cadet Mark Jackson, a sophomore, said of his participating in ACE training, “As a nuclear engineering major I never would have been exposed to the field of manufacturing in any way, but now I have the opportunity to not only learn but apply new information that will help to prepare me to succeed as a future Air Force officer.”

This past week (week 7) the cadets used a tensile testing machine to measure the material properties of polymer samples produced by additive manufacturing. Schmitz explained the day’s activity as well as what the final three weeks will look like, “Today, we are focused on additively manufactured samples. Cadets will be exposed to testing methods that are used to evaluate the quality of manufactured components. Beyond today, we will continue laboratory experiences to include CNC machining. Taken together, additive manufacturing and machining provide a hybrid manufacturing capability that is important for the DOD.”

“Cadets that are currently enrolled in the program are gaining confidence in their ability to lead Airmen. They are accelerating change, harnessing energy, and focusing it in a purposeful direction”, Lt Col Estep observed. “We want each cadet that earns a commission in our program to be informed, empowered to problem-solve, come up with unique solutions, and make smart recommendations and decisions as they become Second Lieutenants.”

AFROTC Cadet Elise Everling, a senior, said the ACE program has been relevant to her cadet training because, “It has pushed me out of my comfort zone. We talk a lot about pushing and bettering ourselves in every aspect through AFROTC and personally, this has been academically challenging,” Everling continued, “As a biology major, this is out of my wheelhouse. I never would have expected to find myself in a manufacturing environment, much less this late in my undergraduate academic career. However, I have expanded my knowledge outside of my major focus and this has contributed to becoming a more well-rounded individual academically.”

AFROTC Cadet Russell Britton, a junior, said, “As an electrical engineering major who works with CURENT labs, I don’t usually get to learn about what goes into machining and manufacturing. Being in this program has given me the opportunity to learn how topics in other fields of engineering can apply to my own field of engineering and AFROTC. The problem-solving aspect of this training has also helped me improve my critical thinking skills, which is essential to my success as a cadet and future Air Force Officer.”

Schmitz and Lt Col Estep hope to continue this valued partnership moving forward.

“About one-third of our cadets are enrolled in engineering programs, and one of our recruiting initiatives is actively seeking STEM candidates for our program,” Lt Col Estep said. “The opportunities provided by Dr. Schmitz are a viable avenue to help us attract and retain quality young men and women for AFROTC.”