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NEWS | Jan. 26, 2021

Unique NSWCDD Program Enhances Internship Opportunities Amid Pandemic

By NSWC Dahlgren Division Corporate Communications

DAHLGREN, Va. – With the pandemic threatening to cancel the internship programs with Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), Brian Dillon, the Software Architect, jumped into action to create a virtual route to keep internships going within the Sites Planning and Tools Branch. The initiative created a unique Navy program and saved internship opportunities.

At the onset of COVID-19, NSWCDD internship programs felt the effects. One such program is the Science and Engineering Apprentice Program (SEAP). SEAP provides summer internship opportunities for high school students in which they participate in research at Department of Navy (DoN) laboratories. Research opportunities such as SEAP are a key component of developing a future STEM workforce for DoN.  Unfortunately, COVID restrictions led to the cancellation of SEAP this year. 

Another key internship program, used for collegiate-level personnel, is the Scientific, Technical, Engineering, and Mathematics Student Employment Program (SSEP). SSEP interns work in key DoN programs while finishing their undergraduate or graduate degrees. SSEP provides a direct hiring process to ensure that Dahlgren has an ample supply of high quality scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematics graduates for its hiring needs. In response to COVID-19 restrictions, the NSWC Dahlgren Human Resources (HR) Office and Technical Departments teamed to re-design SSEP internships to ensure continuity of the program despite unprecedented changes in the educational and work environments. NSWC Dahlgren’s commitment to continuing SSEP through the pandemic, while maintaining rigorous safety protocols for all participants, demonstrates that the Laboratory remained “open for business” despite COVID-19.

Facing sudden loss of the high school SEAP internship program, Dillon and the HR team immediately identified two SEAP interns who qualified for SSEP – by virtue of their age and acceptance into college – and brought them onboard through the SSEP program. These students formed the nucleus of the new Expeditionary Dahlgren program. Expeditionary Dahlgren enables the Dahlgren laboratory to conduct cutting edge, exploratory work while indoctrinating its future workforce into the DevSecOps mindset needed for the Agile engineering of Naval software and systems. 

The Expeditionary Dahlgren Program uses a project-based approach similar in form to Dahlgren’s Sly Fox Program. During Sly Fox missions, relatively young engineers and scientists develop leadership skills by executing project-based tasks that force them to learn mission engineering, systems engineering, systems integration, and other skills critical to the Dahlgren mission. Sly Fox participants apply their talents to existing technology gaps and efforts ranging from directed energy and radar systems to unmanned systems and cyber warfare.

Expeditionary Dahlgren made three important changes from the Sly Fox model to adapt to the COVID conditions. Collectively these changes allow the interns to work on real navy software and make important improvements, instead of limiting their internship to a mere academic exercise. First, the interns receive approval from management and cyber experts to work in the public domain. Second, interns would use remote software development practices of high interest to the future of the Navy. Third, a Navy software project was approved for release into the public domain. In this way, the interns would be using the latest software practices on an open-source software project that can be brought back into the classified lab and developed for the specific system needs. These efforts successfully created something with direct applicability to real-world Naval needs.

“We were able to work out the best mix of several objectives academically and programmatically. The ability to ring so many bells at once came out of this new approach, building off the programs that Human Resources Manager for Student Programs Michelle Stuczynski has been stewarding for so long,” explained Dillon.

Currently, the interns are still working virtually from as far away as South Carolina.

“Possibly the best thing we did was extending the internships over the school year,” Dillon shared.

Though the interns are still focusing on their education, working on Dahlgren efforts allows them to gain experience alongside their education. Additionally, the interns are now excelling by successfully applying their work techniques to their schoolwork. Dillon continues to meet virtually with the interns once a week and to find ways to tie their work into projects on base.

“These kids did phenomenal work,” Dillon praised, “They are all very bright and I give them full credit for the success of this program.”

Currently, the two schools involved with Expeditionary Dahlgren are Virginia Tech (VT) and Rappahannock Community College (RCC). However, once COVID-19 is over, there are plans to extend these project-based approaches into more colleges, high schools and middle schools.

“We want to bring the best minds into the Navy and to do that we have to help develop them. By reaching back so far into the educational stream, we can get as much as six to 10 years of contact with these interns before they become full time government employees,” shared Dillon.

It takes many people to forge an effective team. In addition to academic partners, Dillon recognized the strong support provided by the NSWC Line Management, Academic Engagement and Human Resource teams. 

 “I have never met a good idea I didn’t like, and I will happily fold anything into the Expeditionary Dahlgren concept if I think it will work. I have no doubts that the STEM group will have loads of useful and creative ideas in the near future. I will continue to work with anyone who can help improve education,” said Dillon of the future efforts with Expeditionary Dahlgren.

The primary goal of Expeditionary Dahlgren is to increase the outreach in a project-based way and to prepare these interns for future work at Dahlgren. The program has proved successful in making the NSWCDD internship programs stronger than before and more sustainable, given the virtual environment.  “In the end, we are getting more robust outcomes and he have hopes to reinforce and extend the program in follow-on years,” stated Dillon.