BRUNSWICK — Behind the doors of an otherwise unremarkable building at Brunswick Landing, a unique program is educating a new generation of experts in advanced composite materials.
In collaboration with commercial partners, Southern Maine Community College’s Composite Science and Manufacturing program has grown in the past three years into a state-of-the-art education and testing facility.
The program is equipped with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of testing and manufacturing equipment, much of it on loan from commercial partners.
Even though composite materials figure prominently in Maine’s boat-building industry, the applications are much broader, said Andrew Schoenberg, the department chairman and its only full-time faculty member.
Composites are used in manufacturing everything from bridges to wind turbine blades, he said, and demand for skilled workers is growing.
Every company that tours the building and learns about the program has the same reaction, Schoenberg said: “They all say, ‘What you teach is exactly what we need.'”
That’s because the curriculum for the program’s associate’s degree was designed with input from companies that identified skills they wanted in new employees, Schoenberg said.
As a result, students emerge from the program with the comprehensive knowledge of how to design, manufacture and test composite materials. Some have more advanced knowledge than industry veterans, Schoenberg said.
“I’ve had companies who have said, ‘Let me know when you have six students graduate, and I’ll replace my six supervisors,'” Schoenberg said.
In fact, his students have been so successful at finding jobs that the program is missing SMCC’s aim for students to graduate within three years – half the students are employed by the end of their second semester, and he is constantly getting calls from companies looking for new employees, Schoenberg said.
Steve Von Vogt, president of the Maine Composites Alliance, which partners with the college, said the program is a “poster child” for how to pair education and private industry.
“Everyone says, ‘We’re partnering with industry,’ but it’s mostly lip service,” Von Vogt said. “In this case, they literally are.”
The challenge is making people aware of what the program offers, he said.
“Our industry could probably hire three times the output of that program,” Von Vogt said. “The problem is that people don’t know about it, and they don’t know about the high-tech quality of the jobs.”
For those who want to explore further opportunities, graduates of the program can enroll in bachelor’s and graduate-level classes at University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
The program also hosts the Composites Engineering Research Laboratory, or CERL, which offers testing and development for companies.
Since the program began three years ago, it has worked with 35 companies on different projects, all with students’ help, pairing real-world problems with classroom work.
That’s a remarkable achievement for a program that didn’t even have a building of its own to hold classes when it started, Schoenberg said.
Eric Grimnes, from Brunswick-based Harbor Technologies, said having the program is a good resource, especially in terms of testing his company’s products. The company has also set up internships that act as a feeder program for new employees.
“A lot of the things we do are advanced composites manufacturing, so the more training they have in that, the better,” Grimnes said.
But even as it makes waves in the industry, the SMCC composites program is struggling to attract students. That’s partially because it is not well advertised, but also because people are unaware of the opportunities the composites industry provides, Schoenberg said.
“We don’t get students because they don’t know we exist,” he said. There are 30 students enrolled in the program, but there is easily enough room for twice that number, he said.
“And we could have them all employed within two years,” Schoenberg added.
Before he discovered the program, Drew Sfirri was working at a deli, after unsuccessfully trying for a typical four-year degree at the University of Maine.
He was made aware of the SMCC program after working temporarily for a composites manufacturer. Within a semester, he was hooked on the world of composites, and is now CERL’s only employee.
“It’s perfect for me,” Sfrri said, adding that the program combines his strength in math and science with his interest in analysis. He hopes to eventually apply to the UMass advanced degree program, too.
Schoenberg hopes to attract more students as the program grows.
“If we can be so significant out of a community college,” he said, “it means there is a massive opportunity out there.”
This article was edited 2/12 to clarify bachelor and graduate degree opportunities at UMass Lowell and note that Schoenberg is the only full-time faculty at the SMCC program.
Southern Maine Community College student Drew Sfirri with a router, used to cut molds of composite materials, at the college’s Composite Science and Manufacturing program at Brunswick Landing.
Molds designed and cut by students at SMCC’s Composite Science and Manufacturing program at Brunswick Landing.
SMCC student Drew Sfirri adjusts a sheet of composite plastics on an analysis table at the college’s Composite Science and Manufacturing program at Brunswick Landing.