Karl Liggin and Todd “T.J.” Jackson might have become enemies while growing up in the Alcoa City School System.
Liggin says the two always gave each other a hard time as youngsters growing up in Alcoa. “By the time we made it to the sixth grade, we decided to become best friends and compete in the classroom,” Liggin said. “That’s how we both ended up getting into engineering.”
Liggin and Jackson were home on Thursday, Aug. 12, to lead a presentation in the school system where they grew up. They spoke to seventh and eighth graders At Alcoa Middle School, sharing details about their jobs - one works with NASA and the other with Intel - and imparting life lessons to the students on the importance of attitude, hard work and setting goals.
Liggin encouraged the seventh and eighth grade students to pay attention in class and to understand that this is an important time in their lives. “This is a crucial point in your life and how you want to live your life and the direction you want to go,” he said.
Liggin, an engineer at the Marshall Flight Center in Alabama, showed video of NASA astronauts returning to the moon, explaining that this is one of the agency’s goals.
He showed another video that featured a powerful space telescope NASA is building. Liggin works with engineers to develop test facilities that test mirrors for space telescopes. “We will be able to use this telescope to look into black holes and see how the universe started,” he said.
The pair, both 1981 Alcoa High School grads, intended to take different directions in their lives. After high school, Liggin was off to become an architect, and Jackson intended to become a lawyer. After Jackson finished school and completed a career in the military, he became an engineer. Liggin, too, had chosen the engineering field.
Jackson showed an Intel corporate video explaining the construction of their FAB 32 facility near Phoenix, Ariz. “Intel’s goal is to get their processors into as many computers as possible. The company wants to be part of society’s computing and communications activities,” he told students.
When Jackson said his company builds microprocessors, not many of the students gathered in the gym seemed impressed. He brought the importance home by asking, “How many of you like fast computers?” and the students cheered.
Jackson, a technical expert who specializes in photographing the work done at Intel, said to build a processor requires getting sand, melting it, processing that into silicone ingots and slicing those into wafers. The wafers each hold 300 microchips.
While the chips are essentially made of sand, much is done to keep dust out of the areas where the microchips are made. Jackson had seventh grader Brian Roff come to the front and put on white coveralls, headgear, mask, gloves and a double set of boots. Jackson explained that employees wear this gear while working.
“Any type of dust that gets on the equipment we’re building could destroy it,” Jackson said. “You’re not supposed to wear deodorant or lipstick. You go in very natural.”
Jackson said he wanted to encourage the students since it is the beginning of the school year. He brought out three balls representing three different but important traits the students needed to develop to be successful in school and life - a basketball, a baseball and a tennis ball.
Jackson said when he was playing basketball at Alcoa High School, the last thing players did at the end of each practice was hit 20 baskets. “We had to shoot 20 in a row before we could go home,” he said.
The benefit, said Jackson, was that it taught him how to deal with pressure. “When you’re playing Maryville, and people are yelling at you to miss it, I just imagined I was stepping up to shoot 20 in a row like at practice. Then I would hit two, and Alcoa would win,” he said. “It taught self-discipline.
Jackson held up a baseball and explained, “Life sometimes throws you curve balls. Have a ‘can-do’ attitude. Even though life throws you a curve, still you can rise above it,” he said.
Jackson shared how his own son was injured playing football but didn’t let the injury keep him down and went through rehabilitation and learned to be successful, even though he has to use a wheelchair. “It’s all about a positive attitude. Just because you may not always have the best things, you can always have a good attitude,” he said.
With the tennis ball, Jackson explained the significance of goal-setting. It is important to have low, medium and high goals or objectives, with the low goals being the ones that can be attained quickest and the high goals those which take more time and effort.
“We should all concentrate on getting a good education,” Jackson said. “Education is important.”
Principal Jim Kirk encouraged the students to apply what they heard for the two former Alcoa High School students. “You heard valuable lessons today,” he said. “I hope you take it to heart. Remember, set good goals for yourself and strive to meet those goals.”
After the presentation, Kirk said he was proud of his former students and jumped at the chance to have them come speak to the students. “In sixth grade, they were in my class,” he said. “This is important for these kids. People from their own community are successful. They’ve gone on a made a difference in the world.”
Caroline Tate, a paraprofessional at the school, arranged the visit. “We all grew up together,” she said. “They’re both humble and still out there working with teens.”
Liggin said he normally makes presentations to professions, and this was the first time he had ever spoken to a group of students. It was special, he said, because it was in Alcoa, although the joint visit, “took some convincing by T.J.,” he said.
Liggin said he joined NASA in 1991. “It’s a great sense of accomplishment to go to work with the space agency,” he said. “One of the biggest things I remember picking up going through Alcoa schools was great friends to help you stay motivated to meet an objective,” he said.
Jackson said he tries to explain that experience is good, but education is what gets a person “in the door” for an interview. The Alcoa grad said he always tries to stress the themes of self-discipline, a “can-do” attitude and goal-setting.
The Intel engineer said a person’s path to success starts even before they arrive at kindergarten. “It starts in the home. I think we need high standards and higher expectations,” he said.
Jackson, who does presentations to students as well as professionals, said he didn’t really get too nervous knowing he was speaking to students in his hometown. “I like to focus on children. They’re in school and need motivation. This is what I like to do.”