Eighteen "Air Force STEM 2020 Challenge" essay contest winners from Virginia, Maryland and District of Columbia schools were invited to the Pentagon on April 20 for a day of learning about innovation in the Department of Defense.
The 317th Recruiting Squadron's Air Force STEM 2020 Challenge was an essay contest designed to inspire innovation and creativity in science, technology, engineering and math programs. Local high school and middle school students were challenged to write an essay about the importance of STEM careers for the future.
The 317th RCS received an overwhelming response. Recruiters reached out with the Air Force STEM 2020 Challenge contest to hundreds of schools in the region that helped market the contest through their social media and websites.
The 18 essay winners toured the Pentagon and participated in a "Fighter Pilot for a Day" program. They received F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter briefings and had the chance to fly state-of-the-art fighter aircraft simulators.
"It was a pleasure to welcome these future innovators, and give them a taste of what it is like to serve here," said Lt. Col. Steven Whitney, who works in the Joint Chiefs of Staff Force Structure, Resources and Assessment Directorate and acted as the students' tour guide. "It was inspiring to spend time with our nation's future leaders."
One of the most solemn moments came while visiting the 9/11 Memorial in the Pentagon. Whitney asked one of the students where they were on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I was in kindergarten ... but I remember seeing all of it on TV," said Mariam Cocker, a student from Roosevelt High School in Maryland.
It was then that one of the fathers on the tour came forward and shared his experiences as a first responder at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Everyone on the tour erupted in applause.
Following their visit to the Pentagon, the young innovators got their chance to show their stuff with America's latest technology at the Lockheed Martin Fighter Demonstration Center in Crystal City, Va. They received in-depth briefings on the Air Force's newest fighter aircraft, the F-35.
Heather Penney, an Air National Guard fighter pilot, led the presentation. Then, former military fighter pilots escorted the students to state-of-the-art F-35 and F-22 simulator facilities. They also shared their own flying experiences, ranging from combat encounters in Vietnam all way through both Gulf wars. Students shared their input as well and talked about everything from advanced robotics to how tomorrow's avionics "ought to work."
At the end of the day, the Air Force STEM 2020 Challenge winners left Air Force and industry leaders with a comforting sense of America's future.
"We often label our young folks these days as the 'I/me' Generation," said Lt. Col. Ravi Chaudhary, the 317th RCS commander. "However, I don't see it that way. These future leaders have an incredible sense of the future, particularly when it comes to the impact of Sept. 11 on their lives. They really are our country's next greatest generation -- innovators with visions well beyond the capabilities of our current generation. They are the key to innovation in America. I can't wait until Air Force STEM 2021 and see what the future holds."
The 317th RCS is located in Oxon Hill, Md., and covers a 43,000 square-mile area that includes Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. Its mission is to inspire, engage and recruit the brightest, most competitive and diverse men and women for service in America's Air Force.
More information on the Air Force STEM 2020 Challenge contest can be found at http://www.aetc.af.m il/news/story.asp?id=123283787.