National Center on Secondary Education and Transition
In Their Own Words: Employer Perspectives on Youth with Disabilities in
Boosting the High Tech Workforce:
Kennedy Space Center, NASA
by Cassandra Black
The John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration (NASA) center of excellence for launch and payload
processing systems. KSC is in charge of space launch operations and spaceport
and range technologies. Part of this responsibility includes the checkout,
launch, and landing of the space shuttle and its payloads. KSC is located
at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport in Florida.
High Tech Exposure for Students with Disabilities
We have been providing internships since 1985, but became involved in
the High School High Tech (HSHT) Program in 1995 to provide internships
for high school students with disabilities. The goals of the HSHT program
are to motivate students’ interests in high-tech careers and to
assist students with disabilities to become independent, productive members
of the workforce of the 21st century.
KSC’s HSHT program works in partnership with the Space Coast Center
for Independent Living (the local program administrator) and Able Trust
(the statewide program administrator in Florida). SCCIL is a community-based
student, parent, and employer program designed to encourage students with
physical, sensory, or learning disabilities to pursue their interests
in science, engineering, and technology. Applicants apply directly to
SCCIL, which recruits students from local schools as early as seventh
grade. Students are eligible to participate in a six-week internship at
KSC when they reach age 16. SCCIL collaborates with NASA to screen applications,
help with placement, and assist with transportation, accommodations, etc.
SCCIL conducts a variety of skill-building workshops for students, including
interviewing skills and computer training. Students also write a final
report as a culminating activity of their internship.
As program manager of HSHT, I work with managers and supervisors to provide
internships at KSC and to determine the schedule of summer activities
such as tours and presentations. I also participate in many of the SCCIL
activities for students. I try to have a presence at these activities
so that I can get to know the students and their families, become familiar
with the students’ skills and interests, and provide information
about the KSC HSHT program as well as its skills and technology needs.
The annual cycle for the KSC HSHT program is:
- Fall-Spring: Establish KSC requirements, market the project in the
community and receive and evaluate applications;
- Spring: Interviews, workshops, and activities; and
- Summer: Six-week internships at KSC, which include matches with KSC
Strategies for a Good Work Experience
The job match is very important. I work with the SCCIL program manager
to identify students’ interests and skills, and then I match students
with KSC personnel based on the students’ interests, the circumstances
of the particular work sites to which they might be assigned, and the
qualities of potential KSC mentors. Students are introduced to their KSC
mentors on their first day on the job and are given clear expectations
for their internship. For their part, the mentors have been very pleased
with their student workers as a result of the careful matching.
By attending student activities at the SCCIL, I have visibility with
the students and their parents and become familiar with the students’
interests, skills, and needs. At times we are able to meet the students’
parents at the SCCIL activities. This is the first work experience for
many of the students, and the parents have questions and concerns that
I try to address. This process is a full-circle community partnership.
I try to have an open-door policy for easy access and communication with
students, mentors, agency support staff, and parents to share any concerns
they might have at any time.
Our Lessons Learned
In the past, KSC interns have been primarily college students. The employer
mentors were initially concerned about whether high school students and
students with disabilities would be able to do the work. I needed to meet
with prospective mentors to provide some disability awareness training.
I told the mentors that the students might have disabilities, but that
they all had individual abilities and interests.
We have found that the students have been very creative in finding solutions
to tasks. Identifying student support needs as soon as possible is necessary
to make the work experience positive from the start. At times the students
want so badly to demonstrate that they can do the job independently that
they are reluctant to ask for additional help or support. I now speak
with the SCCIL program administrator to identify accommodations and with
KSC staff to clarify what is needed before the student comes to NASA.
NASA also has a center-wide Disability Awareness Action Working Group.
By representing my program in this group, I become familiar with the center-wide
perspective on effective measures to work with people with disabilities.
For an outside agency to successfully support a student work experience,
it is important for the agency to do its homework. To create an effective
job match, the agency needs to be familiar with both job requirements
and the students’ skills, support needs, and interests in specific
career fields. The agency should understand the availability and types
of jobs in a company and anticipate future company trends. In this way,
the agency can be well informed and most supportive in helping both the
company and the student to have a positive work experience.
The support services that SSCIL provides include:
- Recruiting, prescreening, and referring students from local high schools;
- Helping with the job match process, which is a team effort between
the KSC HSHT and SCCIL programs;
- Providing job support through site visits as needed; and
- Providing NASA with center-wide interpreter services for interns and
employees who are deaf.
A Success for Everyone
One student with limited mobility and speech blossomed in the program.
Her parents noted that prior to her internship, she was often very quiet
and did not participate in activities because her speech was so difficult
to understand. In addition, her family had been very concerned and protective
about her visiting different places.
She interned in the astronaut crew quarters, which has a strict security
protocol, so we had to address the staff’s concerns. We worked out
the security issues, and with the help of SSCIL, we were able to address
those concerns. Once those issues and her accommodation needs were addressed,
she had a successful internship in database management, creating databases
The staff was very pleased with her work ethic, and her family was amazed
and pleased with her increased independence, self-care skills, and heightened
self-esteem. Despite her parents’ concerns, she later participated
in a statewide Youth Leadership Forum for Individuals with Disabilities
that required her to be away from home. Before her internship, she or
her family would not even have considered this type of activity. She became
a “star” of the program and served as a peer leader the next
year. She is now finishing her second year of community college and will
soon be enrolling in a four-year university. She is also planning to be
married. This young woman had a positive work experience at KSC, and it
also enabled her to excel in other situations. Now she will pursue the
higher education necessary for a career in a high-tech field.
A total of 56 students from the program have interned at KSC. Some 95%
have enrolled in postsecondary education. It is clear that they have benefited
from the experience. NASA’s KSC also benefits from this type of
partnership by having quality interns who can do the job, by receiving
the support we need to make it work, and by giving our future workforce
Cassandra Black is the Program Manager for NASA’s High School
High Tech Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
598K, 40 pages
Citation: Luecking, R., Ed. (2004).
Essential tools: In their own words: Employer perspectives on youth
with disabilities in the workplace. Minneapolis, MN: University of
Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary
Education and Transition.
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