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Home : Media : News
NEWS | Dec. 17, 2022

Biggest-Ever Group of Ventura County Students Graduate from Pre-Engineering Program

By Thomas McMahon, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division NSWC Port Hueneme Division

More than 30 high school students from around Ventura County graduated this week from Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD)’s fall 2022 Pre-Engineering Program — the biggest cohort to date for the rigorous after-school program.

The Dec. 13 graduation ceremony at the Oxnard Harbor District office in Port Hueneme culminated a 12-week career exploration course in which 32 students from Oxnard Union High School District, Ventura Unified School District (USD) and Santa Paula USD learned from real-life naval engineers and gained hands-on experience.

“One of the beauties of this program is what we call positive professional touch points,” said Ramon Flores, NSWC PHD’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) coordinator, speaking to families at the graduation. “Your students had the opportunity to engage with more than 30 engineers and scientists over the course of 12 weeks to learn all things engineering.”

NSWC PHD facilitates the Pre-Engineering Program twice per year in partnership with the school districts and other naval organizations. The fall 2022 session was the first to include students from Santa Paula USD, which signed an Educational Partnership Agreement with NSWC PHD in July, enabling the naval command to share educational resources with the school district.

During the Pre-Engineering Program, students rotated through engineering instructors to hear their career stories and to design, build and test projects that represent several disciplines, from systems and electrical engineering to environmental and aeronautical engineering. The instructors were professional engineers with NSWC PHD, Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center (NAVFAC EXWC) at Naval Base Ventura County, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and the Engineering Duty Officer School on the NSWC PHD campus.

For example, Alan Jaeger, a manager with NSWC PHD’s research and technology office, taught a class on unmanned systems, such as aerial drones, at the command’s Fathomwerx Lab in the Port of Hueneme. The students learned how unmanned systems work and what they can do, from environmental tasks to search and rescue to naval missions. The aspiring engineers then built their own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and flew them in Fathomwerx Lab’s nearly 40-foot-tall indoor drone cage.

“It was a great opportunity for the students to learn about UAVs from a systems engineering approach and then get the hands-on experience of building one and flying it,” Jaeger said.

After applying for the competitive Pre-Engineering Program through their school counselors, the selected participants took the weekly classes at Fathomwerx Lab on top of their regular academic schedules. After completing the program, the students earned credit toward graduation, a certificate of achievement and a letter of recommendation signed by NSWC PHD Deputy Technical Director Michael Ladner.

During the graduation ceremony, naval officials and school district administrators praised the students for dedicating their time and efforts to expand their STEM knowledge and their career prospects.

“It’s extremely motivating for me to see the future of the engineering community,” Brant Pickrell, deputy technical director of NAVFAC EXWC, told the students. “You guys blow me away with how smart you are. You will do phenomenal things.”

Joe Bova, career technical education administrator at Ventura USD, said that his district and others across the county are working to bring more skill-based opportunities like the Pre-Engineering Program to more students.

“This program is a shining star of the community that everyone should be looking to in terms of work-based learning,” Bova said.

Tom McCoy, superintendent of Oxnard Union High School District, said that the Pre-Engineering Program helps provide a path for students to secure high-need, high-wage jobs in Ventura County after college.

“There are so many wonderful career opportunities for you in all of the engineering fields,” McCoy said. “We’re really excited in Oxnard Union High School District to help you students become college ready and career prepared.”

McCoy has a long history with the Pre-Engineering Program, which started more than 20 years ago when he was assistant principal of Hueneme High School. The principal at the time tasked McCoy with finding 10 students who were interested in learning about engineering to participate in the new program. Since then, McCoy said, it has been “such a treat” to see dozens of students graduate from the program twice per year.

Santa Paula USD was new to the Pre-Engineering Program this year, and, with the district being about 20 miles from Port Hueneme, transportation was a challenge. To that end, Santa Paula High School Principal Elizabeth Garcia and Interim Counselor Oralia Razo drove students to the Pre-Engineering Program classes each week.

At the graduation ceremony, Santa Paula High School Assistant Principal Daniel Guzman said that the district’s partnership with NSWC PHD paved the way for a successful first run in the Pre-Engineering Program.

“Our students were very engaged and thankful for the opportunity, and it was an awesome experience for everyone who participated,” Guzman said.

Two Santa Paula High School students — Karen Magaña and Anthony Valdovinos — will build on their Pre-Engineering Program experience through paid internships with NSWC PHD at Fathomwerx Lab next summer.

Magaña and Valdovinos were among several Santa Paula High School students who took part in the weeklong STEM Engineering and Construction Camp that NSWC PHD and NAVFAC EXWC hosted last summer. Valdovinos said the camp helped sparked his excitement about engineering and led him to apply for the fall Pre-Engineering Program, which he said was a great experience.

“I learned so much from the first day to the last day,” he said, adding that building drones was one of his favorite parts of the program.

NSWC PHD Commanding Officer Capt. Tony Holmes, who is an engineering duty officer, told the Pre-Engineering Program graduates that the nation needs them to solve tomorrow’s engineering challenges.

“Anywhere you go, you’re going to be worth your weight in gold, because we need every one of you to be part of our future,” Holmes said. “It is so important to invest in the next generation of engineers, and we’re thrilled that the Pre-Engineering Program helped prepare you for the next step in your educational journey.”

NSWC PHD is a field activity of Naval Sea Systems Command and provides the U.S. Navy fleet with in-service engineering, test and evaluation, and product support for combat systems. The command is located at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme.

For more information, contact Theresa McKenrick, NSWC PHD public affairs officer, at (805) 228-0332 or