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Released October 1, 2003

By Angie Cutrer

HATTIESBURG -- Go down Highway 42 to Petal and you'll see that though you've left the city limits of Hattiesburg, a Golden Eagle influence is just around the corner.

Thanks to the influence of The University of Southern Mississippi, polymer students at Petal High School have an opportunity to be involved in the Polymer Plastics Technology course, which focuses on basic knowledge of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) systems, polymer production and solids production.

The school-to-work course spans two years, and during that time, students have the opportunity to gain practical, real-world experience. Two long-term goals of the program are to offer subcontract services to local industries and become involved in area recycling programs, according to Area Development Partnership officials.

"[The course] is one of only four in the United States," said Deborah Reynolds, the Petal Chamber of Commerce's executive director. "These students job shadow with companies in Hattiesburg that deal with polymer products. These companies have donated a15-ton injection molding machine in the classroom, and I've heard that some of these students get out of high school and walk into $17-$18/hour jobs."

The course is in its sixth year, and enrollment numbers continue to climb. Last year, 38 students enrolled in the course, 13 of whom were second-year attendees.

The Polymer Plastics Technology course came about after a 1994 conversation between former Petal Superintendent Dr. William Lewis and Dr. Shelby Thames, founder of Southern Miss' polymer science program. "[Thames] was convinced that Hattiesburg and south Mississippi could become the polymer service center of the Southeast United States," Lewis said in September 1997.

And Thames was right.

"Since USM started its polymer science program years ago, there have been many ups and downs in the job market," Thames said. "But I don't remember anytime our graduates haven't found employment. ...This is a magnificent opportunity for a lot of young people in our area."

Thames, a distinguished professor of polymer science and now president of the university, founded the Department of Polymer Science in 1970 with 10 students. Thames served as the sole faculty member. The U.S. Department of Agriculture helped Southern Miss build and equip a $19.7 million Polymer Science Research Center in 1991; seven years later, it was officially rededicated in honor of Thames.

The three-story, 86,000-square-foot facility houses state-of-the-art instrumentation for the department and the independent Mississippi Polymer Institute, which directly helps fill industry training and consulting needs of more than 400 polymer-related industries in the state.

The first year of Petal's polymer science program, 64 students signed up for the 45 slots in classes. By February 1998, the polymer science graduate program at Southern Miss itself remained among the nation's best, according to U.S. News & World Report. Southern Miss' program still is ranked among the best, and that influence helps with Petal's program.

"Any time we need something, we know we can contact Southern Miss and get help," said Eddie Spalding, the course's instructor. "Southern Miss and the Mississippi Polymer Institute are invaluable. Right now, I send students over to them during our partnering program so the kids can see the educational system as a part of polymers. I want them to also focus on the educational aspect and how important it is."

On average, Spalding teaches about 40 students each year-- 30 are first year. He's had five or six go on to work right after high school, but most go to Jones County Junior College for two-year degrees. This year is the first year for a course graduate to complete the Southern Miss program, and Spalding said four or more are beginning the program now.

"Personally, I think this program is the best thing to come down the pipe in a long time," he said. "[The area] is starting to get more industries, and we need to produce students who are capable and knowledgeable. And we're doing it."



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October 8, 2003 3:31 PM