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Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals from Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM) and the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) brought an incredible diversity of activities and experiences to more than 50 young people June 16-20 at this year’s Quantico Middle-High School Summer STEM Academy. The goal: help middle school students develop their STEM skills and highlight the professional opportunities that await those who successfully acquire them. Not incidentally, the activities and camaraderie also happened to be a lot of fun for the students, teachers and STEM mentors who participated.

“The most important thing about [the academy] is the interaction the kids get with the engineers,” said Joe Plaia, director of the STEM academy and a chief engineer at NSWCDD. “They’re in small groups; there are four students for every engineer. [Students] get to have an entire week of talking with the engineers, seeing what they do, how they got to where they are. It’s important to show these kids that they can actually do STEM challenges and be in these positions one day.”

The Quantico Middle-High School Summer STEM Academy, now in its fourth year of existence, is a collaborative outreach of the National Defense Education Program (NDEP), Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), MARCORSYSCOM, the College of William and Mary, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA).

This year’s events included team-building, Lego robotics Green City challenges, spaghetti and marshmallow towers, bridge design, a rail gun demonstration and a forensics event led by FBI agents. Dr. Rose Hayden, an engineer assigned to NSWCDD, introduced some new food chemistry events that not only produced smiles among participants, but an enticing aroma in the cafeteria of Quantico Middle-High School.

“It was a project from my undergraduate days,” said Hayden. “It has to do with the rising of bread using yeast. The same amount of yeast was used in all of the breads with different grains and different flours, each with different gluten contents. The kneading of the dough creates gluten pockets, the yeast produces CO2, causing the bread to rise. The students then compare five different types of bread, measuring the weight and volume, and then calculating the density. Then we’ll slice the bread and eat it so we can see which ones we like.”

The experiment was a big hit among the students. “Can we eat the bread yet?” asked Gabriella, 11, a cooking enthusiast who enjoys preparing meals with her mom.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” Gabriella continued later. “Before I never saw that there was a lot of science behind cooking.”

The scientific approach to cooking also impressed another student who already has an eye on doing it professionally. “I want to be a cook and there is a lot of math and science in that,” said Mikala, 12. “It was new breads that I’d never made before. Kneading the bread and putting it all together was fun, especially putting the yeast in and watching it rise. The heat activates the yeast but if the water is too hot, it will kill it. I never thought about that.”

Another food-related activity saw participants extract DNA from strawberries. “[Students] can visually see strands from a mass of DNA that comes out of the strawberry,” said Hayden.

The food-themed STEM events were some of many the students enjoyed. “It’s been really cool,” said Mikala. “Right now, we’re trying to get our robots to get over obstacles. I think the most challenging part is to put all the pieces together. There are instructions about where the pieces go to build the robot body. But you have to program the [commands] in and it takes a lot of time.”

Mikala found that teamwork helped overcome the challenges. “All of my teammates are nice and they’re easy to cooperate with,” she said.

Teamwork is, of course, an essential quality among successful STEM professionals. The collaborative nature of the events helps young people develop skills like cooperation and leadership.

“I can show [my teammates] how to do things and program,” said Kristian, 13. “You learn teamwork, but you have to work [at it].”

Kristian’s knack for programming is a product of experience he gained from prior STEM academies. “This is my third year,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot better at programming; my first year I was really bad at it. It’s really fun now.”

Even though the academy takes place in the summer, Kristian said the lessons have boosted him during the school year. “It’s helped me get a lot better in my math and science classes.”

He also credited Dr. Richard Tom, math department chair at Quantico Middle-High School, for helping him improve his grades. Tom, along with other educators at the school thanked the STEM professionals for their contributions to the program.

“This is my first year of the STEM Summer Academy,” said Kat Syarto, teacher. “At first I was a little nervous, because I haven’t [taught STEM] in my last ten years of teaching. They paired us with the engineers or scientists and it was so cool to see them break everything down. It’s been very interesting.”

Syarto suspected that she enjoyed taking DNA samples from strawberries even more than the students. She said that seeing STEM professionals in action helps her keep students enthusiastic about their academic and career goals. “On the teacher side, it helps us see the different jobs related to STEM and the big picture of what engineers do,” she said.

The process was equally rewarding for the STEM professionals who gave their time and efforts to make the STEM academy a success. “I love being able to share engineering knowledge with the kids,” said Brent Ingraham, lead engineer at the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles program office. “The group from Dahlgren puts on a great camp for the kids. We like to bring the vehicles out and challenge their minds.”

Ingraham’s event was no mere vehicle display; he engaged the students in a back and forth conversation about the engineering principles that make the MRAP such an effective tool on the battlefield. “One of the things we try to bring out is to demonstrate some of the capabilities and unique engineering challenges of the MRAP,” he said. “Everything from survivability, mobility on off-road terrain-how to tie all that into one vehicle.”

The response from students has been inspiring. “We ask the kids about what would make [MRAP] survivable and tie in some of the vehicle design characteristics to tie it all together and help them with the stuff they’re doing in STEM,” said Ingraham. “You really see them start to think and use their engineering minds.”

It wasn’t just experienced STEM professionals who mentored young people at the academy, however. Several high school age students who attended past STEM academies returned as junior mentors, using the opportunity to enhance their own STEM and leadership skills. “Being able to help the younger kids has been a great experience,” said Tucker, 15.

Tucker roamed the cafeteria and offered the younger students some of the insights he gained from working through the same challenges. The experiences have changed the way he views STEM.

“I’ve been a lot more interested in sciences and mathematics,” he said. “It’s helped me a lot more in understanding how math is used.”

Tucker draws inspiration from his father, a Marine officer, as he narrows down what he’d like to do with his STEM skills. “I want to go to college and join the Marine Corps and do some kind of engineering, maybe in aviation or as a tanker,” he said. “I enjoy the idea of joining the Marine Corps-doing something great for myself and for my country.”