NOAA Corps supports research on the water and in the air
Officers train and specialize during three-year land and two-year sea terms. Science and technology are essential components of their mission in both places
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, Silver Spring, MD) is a federal agency focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere. NOAA warns of dangerous weather, charts seas and skies, guides the use and protection of ocean and coastal resources, and conducts research to improve understanding and stewardship of the environment.
NOAA operations are supported by 300-plus uniformed service members who make up the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps. “NOAA Corps officers are trained at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to drive research ships,” says Lieutenant Tony Perry III, chief of NOAA Corps recruiting. “Officers lead field parties and dive missions, and drive small boats for NOAA.” NOAA Corps officers chart the oceans on NOAA’s seafloor mapping vessels, and helped re-open the ports of New York and Norfolk, VA after Hurricane Sandy. They pilot NOAA’s environmental monitoring aircraft, including the agency’s “hurricane hunter” planes.
Although NOAA Corps is the smallest uniformed service in the United States, it supports the largest research fleet in the world, Perry adds.
Two at sea, three on land
Many NOAA Corps officers have mechanical, civil and chemical engineering training or science and math backgrounds. Throughout their careers, officers alternate two-year sea and three-year land assignments. “They start out as junior officers at sea during their first two years, getting experience in driving the ships that conduct oceanographic and atmospheric research,” says Perry. “In addition to monitoring El Niño, and tracking tsunami and weather buoys, their tasks can include weather modeling, studying mandated fish stocks, overseeing marine mammal protection, and conducting turtle surveys.”
During the land assignments, engineers focus on their specialties. They may work in atmospheric science or design underwater and unmanned vehicles. They also can work at any one of the fishery labs across the country doing habitat assessment.
“We hire candidates right out of college, as well as people who have industry experience,” Perry says. “We’re looking for anyone who has an interest in atmospheric or oceanographic research, plus those with leadership experience: managers, supervisors, team leaders. We look at how potential officers interact with other people because we are such a small organization and, particularly at sea, you are living in tight quarters.”
NOAA Corps commissions twelve to fifteen new officers every six months, says Perry, with applications due in February and July of each year. “We attend about thirty career fairs each semester at colleges around the country, including Michigan State University, the University of Southern Mississippi, Tuskegee University, City College of New York, Maine Maritime Academy, and the University of Hawaii.” NOAA Corps also places ads online and posts positions on career-focused websites.
Committed to education
NOAA Corps is involved in a variety of community outreach initiatives geared toward education. “We attend events at many of the local high schools and elementary schools in Maryland, particularly in conjunction with judging science fairs,” says Perry.
Each year, NOAA Corps provides volunteers and event support for the TEACH FLEET (Technology’s Effects and Contributions Highlighted for Learning Ecological Environmental Topics) program. TEACH FLEET is a collection of ships made from recycled Lego buildings blocks.
The ships represent every type of modern vessel afloat, from tugboats to aircraft carriers to super tankers. Ships range in length from eighteen inches to six feet long, and each ship contains anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand pieces. The approximately 120 ships in the TEACH FLEET were built by Wilbert McKinley, a former ship designer. The project is financed by grants and donations.
The purpose of the collection is to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) diversity. Each ship is named after a female, African American, Hispanic American, Asian American or Native American notable figure or STEM contributor, and each ship’s mission is related to the biography of its namesake. Among the namesakes are astronaut Elison Onizuka and STEM education proponent and U.S. secretary of education Lauro Cavazos.
The TEACH FLEET vessels appear at events around the country, where they’re used to demonstrate the contributions of diverse leaders to oceanographic and atmospheric research, port and waterway development, environmental research and much more. Explains Perry, “With TEACH FLEET, we’re teaching the community about the important impact of diverse leaders and our organization at the same time.”