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Thanks to unique agreement with NASA, college leads way in eclipse prep

SCC Students stand with tesla coil they built.
SCC students Jonathan Mashburn (left) of Cullowhee and Jesse Moore of Franklin are shown with a Tesla coil they developed using resources provided through Southwestern’s partnership with NASA.
SCC students test out weather balloon they built at SCC's Macon Campus
Jesse Moore, an SCC student from Franklin, holds the college’s high-altitude balloon before a test launch last fall in Franklin.

Not long ago, Jesse Moore was working as an electrician in Macon County.

Now he’s planning to be a rocket scientist.

Two short years back, Matt Cass had his hands full as the science department chair at Southwestern Community College.

Nowadays, his evenings and weekends are booked with speaking engagements as he helps educate the public about a once-in-a-generation natural phenomenon that will blanket much of SCC’s service area in daytime darkness later this year.

The trigger for the immense change in direction for Moore’s and Cass’s lives? Approximately 18 months ago, SCC became the only community college in the nation to enter into a cooperative science agreement with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

“When I first decided to quit my job and enroll at SCC, little did I know that the experiences I’d have here – and the doors those would open for me – would actually provide me the chance to work for NASA,” said Moore, a Franklin resident and father of five. “And that, coincidentally, is the goal I have set out to achieve.”

SCC initially secured more than $1.5 million in NASA funding after Lynda Parlett, the college’s executive director of institutional development, prepared a grant application on behalf of Southwestern and its partners in the Smoky Mountains STEM Collaborative: the Jackson, Macon, Swain County and Cherokee Central school systems; Appalachian State University; Great Smoky Mountains National Park; NASA Marshall Space Center; and Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute.

“We’re excited to have the opportunity to become part of the NASA family and to be the only community college in the nation to have a cooperative agreement with NASA. We look forward to working with our other partners throughout our region,” said Dr. Don Tomas, president of SCC. “The impact on our students and our community will be felt for years to come.”

While eclipse planning is only one component of SCC’s partnership with NASA, the event is expected to draw quite a crowd to the area.

On Aug. 21, a total solar eclipse will track across the contiguous (lower 48) United States for the first time since 1979. The last time Jackson County fell in the path of what scientists call “Totality” was in the year 1506; the next total solar eclipse won’t cast a shadow on Jackson County until 2153.

“It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our region,” Parlett said. “We’re thrilled to be working alongside NASA as the eclipse approaches. No other community college in the nation has access to the resources at our disposal thanks to this cooperative agreement. Our students are gaining experiences and skills that would never have been possible without NASA’s involvement.”

Since securing the funding from NASA, SCC has spearheaded much of the eclipse planning in Jackson County and beyond.

Cass has been speaking to civic groups and schools throughout SCC’s service area. He also worked with colleague Patsy Allen to organize and host a STEM Camp last summer, and his team plans to hold another such camp this summer. SCC will also host several eclipse-related special events in the coming months, including a “How to Photograph the Solar Eclipse” seminar that’s open to the public on July 13.

Additionally, region-wide planning meetings are held regularly at SCC. Strategies for accommodating the influx of visitors – and all the public-safety concerns that go along with such a large-scale event – are discussed in these meetings.

“As Superintendent and as a former science teacher, I was thrilled when notified that our educational partner, Southwestern Community College, invited our school system to the table to plan for this once in a lifetime event,” said Dr. Mike Murray, superintendent of Jackson County Public Schools. “SCC secured a $1.5 million NASA cooperative grant that benefited our entire region. They have coordinated and organized all of the community leaders meeting and provided the resources and professional development required to make this a beneficial teachable moment for our children!

“The behind-the-scenes funding, planning and hard work from everyone involved will make this an event to remember,” Dr. Murray added. “Once again, SCC has proven that a strong partnership with our local public school system results in amazing results for the children in our community!”

Nick Breedlove, who serves as executive director of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority, added: "For more than a year now, Jackson County Tourism has been partners with Southwestern Community College to plan for the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017. Our partnership has reinforced and demonstrated SCC's strong commitment to enhancing the communities they serve. The collaboration, logistics, and expertise that the College continues to provide is invaluable and has helped us significantly with our efforts."

Among the NASA-funded projects SCC students have been working on are a functioning Tesla coil and a high-altitude balloon that will be launched on the day of the eclipse to capture video and still photos.

“Since we entered into this cooperative agreement with NASA, the biggest change for me is that it’s really opened the door for our students to do research,” Cass said. “We’ve had the opportunity to take students to Appalachian State University as well as to Montana.

“Due to resource limitations in the past, our focus had not always been on research,” Cass said. “But now we have an opportunity to do research in a big way.”
The impact on students is immeasurable.

“Last year I was just an electrician,” Moore said. “Thanks to SCC and financial support from the SCC Foundation, now I am kinda like a rocket scientist. How many community colleges could that have helped make that happen?”

Southwestern, which has been ranked among the Top 10 community colleges in the nation three times in the past decade, serves Jackson, Macon, Swain Counties and the Qualla Boundary. For more information about SCC and the programs it offers, visit or call 828.339.4000.

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