More than 100 middle school students from five local districts came to the Dahlgren School on board Naval Support Facility (NSF) Dahlgren on June 25-29 to participate in the annual Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Summer Academy sponsored by Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD).
The event is one of many Virginia Demonstration Project (VDP) STEM academies held throughout the state sponsored by the Department of Defense (DoD) National Defense Education Project, which promotes science and math education as an investment in DoD's future workforce. While the goals of the week-long academy are educational, the opportunity to conduct experiments with STEM professionals and meet new friends brings smiles to students and the STEM mentors alike.
Cmdr. Elvis Mikel, executive officer of Naval Support Activity South Potomac (NSASP) and the holder of a STEM degree, welcomed students and thanked school officials, mentors and everyone else who makes the STEM Summer Academy an annual success story. "Thank you for everything you've done to put this program together," he said.
Even though the goal of the STEM Academy is to promote STEM subjects, Mikel encouraged students to keep an open mind toward all school subjects. "The foundation of a good education is math and science," he said. "Those liberal arts courses round out that complete education."
Communication skills will be key for student groups throughout the week as they work together to solve engineering challenges. The groups are guided by a teacher and the mentorship of a STEM professional.
Capt. Mike Smith, NSWCDD commander and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), seconded Mikel's advice and highlighted all the technologies, some taken for granted, that have changed the world.
Technology taken for granted
"Engineering is extremely important," he said. "This microphone is taking the sound of my voice vibrating a diaphragm inside here.
Attached to that diaphragm is a magnet. The magnet creates a current in the wiring to a bunch of different circuits. It goes up into the speakers where there is another diaphragm up there and it has another diaphragm that vibrates... and that's what your hearing. All of that needed to be designed by engineers."
Smith presented students with some videos of the STEM efforts at NSWCDD, including the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), unmanned boats, gun testing for the Littoral Combat Ship, the software for the Tomahawk cruise missile and the electromagnetic rail gun. An excited gasp came over the students when they were shown high-speed footage of what the latter weapon did to one very unfortunate watermelon.
It was a promising start toward the academy's goal of building students' interest in STEM subjects before they reach high school age.
Many teachers maintain that this is a critical juncture in young people's educational lives, one which determines their future success in school and beyond. If a student is interested in STEM subjects by high school, they can take the necessary classes to pursue a STEM career.
If, by high school, students are uninterested or unable to take classes like algebra, geometry and pre-calculus, they stand little chance of ever making in into a STEM career.
For Jordan Watson, a soon-to-be freshman at Stafford High School, attending last year's STEM Summer Academy in Dahlgren has inspired him to stay involved in his classes.
"I liked all the different stuff we did with the water rockets and robots," he said. "Before I went to the camp, I was wondering when I would ever use this stuff in real life."
What did Watson like most about last year's academy? "Building our own creations and making them work."
This year, Watson is assisting his younger peers by being one of the academy's junior mentors, who help teachers and mentors administer the academy while pursuing their own research projects.
Watson hopes to help students get through any nervousness they might experience as they meet and work with new friends. "I can help tell them what to expect. I was nervous when I first came."
The week of STEM activity is the product of a year of work for the team of Jane Bachman, director of Dahlgren's STEM Academy and an engineer at NSWCDD.
"I'm hoping students see the applications of math and science outside the classroom," she said. "They learn about these things in school, but I'm really hoping they see how they apply in real life."
Bachman thanked the base officials whose assistance makes the academy in Dahlgren possible. "I get so much help and support on base.
The Naval Surface Warfare Center and [Naval Support Activity] South Potomac are very, very helpful."
Bachman was assisted by Dena Kota and Kit Burns, both assigned to NSWCDD, Jake Joseph, assistant director of the STEM Education Alliance at the College of William and Mary School of Education, and Kimberly McGee, a math specialist from Stafford County Schools.
For Burns, a chemist, the payoff for all the hard work and preparation are the students.
"It's very rewarding, very exciting," she said. "Especially when you begin to see [students'] brains click on... you see the light bulb."
Like many of the mentors, Burns thought her own career path may have had more sure footing if such STEM outreaches existed when she was in school. "I really wish that I had this kind of opportunity years ago," she said.
"I had to pick and find my way. My children are in college. If this opportunity had been as developed when they went through [middle and high school], they would have many more opportunities to define themselves. I wish my children had this kind of focused opportunity."
Of course, advancing down a STEM career path is hard work, the kind that does not come easily without a passion for the disciplines.
"The value of a STEM academy is that you have the ability to capture kids' imaginations and sustain it," said Joseph.
"The road to becoming a scientist or engineer is very long and it's difficult. The dream associated with being able to design the things we use every day has got to be sustained by things like this. The kids need to be able to see the importance of applying the knowledge they've learned in school."