Students at Quantico Middle-High School participated in a weeklong summer Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Academy on Jun. 11-15 that featured educational demonstrations, experiments and, of course, hands-on experience with STEM professionals.
The academy made possible by the National Defense Educational Program (NDEP), the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM), the College of William and Mary, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA).
Joe Plaia and Sara Wallace, engineers assigned to the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), Engagement Systems Department, helped guide the Quantico STEM Academy through its second ever outreach.
"Dahlgren has had a STEM Academy for years," said Plaia, who along with Wallace set up the STEM Academy's experiments. "We've reached out to middle schools in the surrounding counties and starting last year, we wanted to make an outreach to DODEA schools to work with the children of service members. So we came to Quantico and partnered with MARCORSYSCOM."
Forty-four students with service member parents enjoyed an educational experience unlike anything they encountered during the school year. The list of activities was impressive: LEGO robotics, spaghetti and marshmallow towers, and water rockets.
Many of the demonstrations were Quantico and Marine Corps-themed, with an FBI forensics exercise, Marine Corps augmented reality gear and Mine Protected, Ambush Resistant (MRAP) vehicle display. The students were placed into groups of four, which partnered with one teacher and one STEM professional for the week's experiments and competitive events.
Many of the STEM professionals who spoke to the students pointed out that problem-solving and teamwork apply to many different career areas.
"I don't care if you're a lawyer," said Dr. John Burrow, executive director of MARCORSYSCOM. "I don't care if you're a scientist or an engineer. I don't care if you're working in business, in accounting or if you're a doctor: the thinking that you're going to use this week applies across the board.
"So learn how to think in a structured, logical, engineering, technical sense and I don't care what [profession] you are, it's going to pay off."
Burrow talked to students about learning from failure and encouraged them to be open-minded to new ideas. "Just because it's different than yours, doesn't mean it's going to be wrong," he said.
Brig. Gen Frank Kelley, commander of MARCORSYSCOM and holder of a degree in aeronautical engineering from Notre Dame, addressed the students and thanked the teachers, STEM mentors and school administrators for making the Quantico STEM Academy possible.
Kelley recounted his own introduction to the STEM disciplines, which developed out of his interest in all things aviation. "To me, it was magic and I didn't know how it worked," he said. "Then I went to high school and I was exposed to science and math."
A key moment of inspiration came for Kelley when he was nine years old. "I get chills just thinking about it right now," he said. "We put a man on the moon. Nobody has done it since. To me, I wanted to be a part of that."
Teachers and administrators at Quantico Middle-High School hoped students would find the same kind of inspiration. Josh Thom, teacher at Quantico Middle-High School, noticed the difference when an experiment from last year's STEM Academy changed his students' attitude.
"The students used Pythagorean theorem and they said 'whoa... this is actually for something that I would want to do,'" he said. "What that does is it takes the science and the math... it creates a shadow of a doubt that math and science might actually be useful. They can't say they're never going to use this again."
Thom added that reaching students by middle school-age was critical. "If a kid writes off engineering and science by the time they're reach eighth grade, they're lost," he said.
Dr. Richard Tom, math department chair at Quantico Middle-High School, agreed. "By introducing a STEM program at the middle school level, we can get the kids interested in science, math and technology where they are. And the kids have a blast."
Recruiting the Next Generation
Tom noted how effective one of last year's STEM competitions, in which students designed underwater robots, was at fostering STEM interest. The Sea Perch competition also received an endorsement from Meghan, a Quantico sophomore who had so much fun last year, she decided to return as a junior mentor.
"I had a great time last year," she said. Meghan took her new responsibility seriously and hoped to make an impact on the middle school students. "Since we're directly involved in the school, we know the students. We can help them by seeing things from a student point-of-view, instead of seeing things as an adult."
NSWCDD engineer Wallace maintains she benefitted from similar STEM-themed events when she was in school. While living in Philadelphia, she helped create the Sea Perch experiment in collaboration with Drexel University.
"As I see it, it is my duty as an engineer to help recruit the next generation," she said. Wallace praised the effort to bring diverse demonstrations and activities to the military dependents in Quantico and hoped to expand that collaboration next year. "We hope to get everyone more involved."
The diversity of the MARCORSYSCOM mentors and the teachers who assisted them contributed to the cross-curricular atmosphere. Some of the subjects Plaia hoped to foster spanned across academic subjects.
"The teams need to learn how to work together," he said. "They need to be able to communicate well. The events that they are going to do really involve physics, math and a whole variety of education areas."
Daniel Mulhern, acting principal of Quantico Middle-High School, saw immense value in the Quantico's Summer STEM Academy. The retired Marine Corps major wrapped up his uniformed career at MARCORSYSCOM. "I think STEM is the direction we're headed in the future," he said. "We embrace it completely."
For Plaia, seeing the STEM Academy in action was worth the effort.
"It's a lot of fun," he said. "The time leading up [to the academy] is a lot of work, but coming here and working with the teachers has been great, because they love doing this. Seeing the students get into it, get competitive and seeing their smiles... I enjoy it."