Step into Eric Tanger’s classroom, and you’ll see no desks or chairs. In one corner of the room, a student uses computer-aided design (CAD) and a 3D printer to design a prototype. In another area, two students work together using a manual lathe to machine parts. One student monitors a CNC machine while chatting with their partner.
Senior Rhett works on the Haas VF1, a CNC Vertical Mill
This is hands-on learning at its best. But the juniors and seniors in Mr. Tanger’s Precision Machining program at Lebanon County Career and Technical Center aren’t just learning the “tools of the trade.” These students are manufacturing hardware that will be used on the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s HUNCH program.
Seniors Dom and Isaac check the progress of their work on the Hurco VMOne, a CNC Vertical Mill
The High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) program provides opportunities for high school students to produce space flight hardware. Many of the projects students are working on are direct requests from Crew Systems and the Astronaut Crew themselves. As these projects are highly likely to be deployed to the International Space Station, there are stringent tolerances and exact specifications that need to be followed. NASA expects these high school students to provide materials of the highest quality.
Mr. Tanger’s students have been tasked with creating Intra-Vehicle Handrails (IVA). In space, crew members use handrails to maintain their position, especially in zero-gravity. They also use handrails as points of attachment for tools and hardware. As heavily used hardware, the handles are in constant need of replacement.
Constructing the handrails
Completed IVA Handrails
The process of prototyping and eventually machining the handle parts is neither simple nor quick. Since the handles will be used in space operations, the hardware must meet the same quality controls as any other vendor, or even the NASA manufacturing labs. This means Mr. Tanger’s students have gone through an extensive training and testing program to ensure they are ready to meet all the requirements to produce flight components. NASA specialists and mentors work with the students along the way to teach them the skills necessary to become an approved vendor for IVA Handrails.
IVA Handrails on the ISS
When asked why he chose to participate in the NASA HUNCH program with his students, Tanger responded, “It’s a way to raise visibility in the industry. No one knows what machining is, it’s like a secret that no one knows about…my students get real-world opportunities. Instead of observing, they are cooperatively participating in real work. A classroom is great, but it is only after you actually make some parts that you get good at it. The NASA program builds confidence in my students. It helps them see that there is life outside of this little area.”
I asked Tanger about the machining industry and why his program is so important to our community. He responded, “Everyone takes [machining] for granted. Everything that is made, farming equipment, auto parts, food processing, packaging, toys. All of it was touched by a machinist. As I talk to my contacts still in industry, they are seeing generational workers retiring, and no one to fill the gap. Most of the kids graduating from my program have a pick of jobs, many with five to ten offers on the table.”
Tanger is currently working on an articulation agreement with Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, a two-year, accredited technical college that prepares students for skilled employment. One professor at the college shared that the average graduate from the college earns $43,000 per year and has multiple job offers to consider.
Tanger stated, “I’m fighting an old stereotype. Kids think [machining] is dark and dingy, you might lose your fingers. It’s a stigma. But most machining jobs are like labs with high-skilled, high-end jobs.”
So what do the students think about being part of the HUNCH program? Rhett, a senior in the machining program, stated, “It’s really dope. I always liked [space], it’s pretty cool I get to be part of this. I’m going to take this and go out to industry and get a job.”
Classmate Dom added, “It’s pretty cool, not too many people get to do stuff like this. I’ve always been hands-on, and this really interested me. I didn’t know really what machining was, but now I’m pretty into it.
Senior Jazmin, the only female in the program, stated, “My old school didn’t have anything like this. This is really cool. I like the programming side. It’s a lot of work, but I can go back and see what I messed up and fix it, make it perfect.” Her teammate Scott agreed, adding, “I’m going to go right into a job. I may not be the best at [machining] but I give it my best shot.”
Jazmin and Scott work with a surface grinder
Jazmin shows a finished product
Mr. Tanger is excited that his students are seeing the big picture. “The more education, the better the opportunities,” he said. “I can take the best engineering student and make them better.”
What does he hope to accomplish in the future? “I hope the publicity will help with building enrollment, momentum. Maybe we can get more vendors, more opportunities for projects. Next year my students will be making parts for Penn State’s graduate engineering class. These are tangible learning experiences.I got started in this program my junior year because i wanted to drop out of high school. Never in a million years did I think I would find a career that I am so passionate about. Never did I think I would be back in the same program now teaching the same skills that afforded me my lifestyle. I have never had to find a job, they have always been available. I want these kids to discover machining.”
Mr. Tanger works with senior Carter on a manual lathe
For additional information about the NASA Hunch program, visit https://nasahunch.com/. To bring HUNCH to your classroom or district, visit https://nasahunch.com/get-involved/.
Experience a 360-degree tour of the ISS to see some of the HUNCH projects in action.