DEVCOM AvMC engineer uses unconventional career path to mentor students in STEAM

By Katie Davis Skelley, DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center Public AffairsMarch 14, 2023

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(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (March 14, 2023) – Military spouse. Mother. Engineer. Volunteer. Mentor.

Melissa Jackson has worn many hats in her life, but the one she has donned for the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center provides inspiration for local school children. Jackson is the Center lead for the We Build It Better program, an interactive, industry-driven educator-developed, curricular experience that engages middle school students in a work-like STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) environment -- a collaboration with Wichita State University, through FirePoint Innovations Center and the Alabama Aviation Education Center, Inc., dba Flight Works Alabama. The WBIB program is comprised of seven different kits designed to engage students through hands-on learning while encouraging and developing soft skills.

Jackson started her professional journey at Alabama A&M University, where she met her husband. After they married, it was determined that they could only fund one college degree so her husband joined the Air Force, to complete his schooling under the GI Bill. Jackson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from AAMU and some years later took a job with the Air Force as a secretary, while stationed in England during their final duty assignment.

“Things don’t always go as you plan,” Jackson said with a smile.

Fast forward to 2009, Huntsville was home again for the Jacksons and their family, which now included two sons. Melissa went to work for the Army’s DEVCOM AvMC as a program support assistant working in Quality Engineering. As Jackson performed her administrative duties, she noticed that many of the engineers possessed computer science degrees like herself. She began to investigate what it would take for her to become an engineer.

After 15 years away from the classroom, “I went back to school, straight into a Calculus 3 class, a challenge that almost broke me,” Jackson said. But through daily determination, family support and some evening prayer sessions, in 2014, she obtained the credentials to become a general engineer.

“QE paid for a good bit of it -- I had to do a total of 12 courses.  I started off at Calhoun Community College doing some prerequisites, the remaining classes were completed at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. My path by no means has been linear, it’s definitely not like most.”

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Continuously in pursuit of self-growth, in 2017, Jackson took on a developmental assignment as the executive officer to the former AvMC director, Dr. Juanita Christensen. She became more than a boss, but a mentor and a continued friend.

“That in itself was a major life-altering milestone,” Jackson said. “I had opportunity to go to four of our AvMC sites, which gave me overall knowledge of the AvMC mission as a whole. You never realize just how stovepiped you are in your particular job. I was a quality engineer; I knew quality engineering things. I knew inspections, test plans and audits. I knew the back-end sustainment portion of the acquisition life cycle. To have the opportunity to work as the Center’s XO and learn about our organization as a whole, it opened up my eyes to exactly what we were doing, how we were doing it and how it all fit together.”

However, her education journey was not over. In 2018, Jackson was then accepted into the Army’s, DACM, Degree Program Education Opportunity, through the Naval Postgraduate School -- a master’s degree program that is highly competitive and accepts only a handful of students each year. Jackson graduated in September 2020 with her degree in Systems Engineering Management.

Today, Jackson splits her time between her duties at AvMC and the We Build it Better Program, which has added two new middle schools in Madison County to its roster. While those keep her busy, it is no surprise to hear that she is also giving of her time and talents in her personal life, volunteering with the National Society of Black Engineers and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, among other associations, and caring for her mother who lives with the Jackson family.

It is that passion for giving back that fuels her, Jackson said.

“My obligation lies in volunteering through educational empowerment and promoting future workforce development, through bringing knowledge to the students. I am a true, servant leader. It is my ultimate goal with outreach to show that others can be like me. There will be obstacles along the way and it may seem as if your path is rocky or a little hilly, but anything can be conquered -- I’m proof!”

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The DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center, headquartered at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, is the Army’s research and development focal point for advanced technology in aviation and missile systems. It is part of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM), a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command. AvMC is responsible for delivering collaborative and innovative aviation and missile capabilities for responsive and cost-effective research, development and life cycle engineering solutions, as required by the Army’s strategic priorities and support to its Cross-Functional Teams.