DAHLGREN, Va. (NNS) -- Middle school students are using their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills to solve problems of Navy interest at the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) Virginia Demonstration Project (VDP) Summer Academy, June 25-29.
More than 100 students joined their mentors - 19 Navy scientists and engineers - to work on STEM summer camp activities and projects impacting simulated naval robotic missions at Naval Support Facility Dahlgren.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for a middle school student to learn about and receive hands-on experience to as many STEM careers as possible in one week," said Jane Bachman, VDP STEM Dahlgren Academy director. "If students learn of a new STEM career interest or perhaps confirm their current STEM career interest - it affords them the opportunity to begin making plans for the courses they need to take in their high school journey."
Navy officials - including Capt. Michael Smith, Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) commander - anticipate that the students may one day use their STEM skills at Naval Warfare Center laboratories to design future technologies supporting U.S. warfighters and America's homeland defense and security.
"In order to do the actual engineering work - the calculations and the interesting stuff working as part of a team -you really need to be grounded in the sciences," Smith told the students. "During the week, you'll be exposed to a bunch of different projects and we hope it will whet your appetite so that you will really want to end up being an engineer and get to do some of the cool things that we get to do here."
The NDEP VDP goal is to increase the attraction of the Navy's Warfare Centers and Shipyards as an eventual place of employment for students participating in the program.
Smith played videos featuring research, development, testing and evaluation conducted at NSWC Dahlgren that included unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned surface vehicles, Tomahawk and ballistic missiles launched from submarines, littoral combat ship gun systems, and the electromagnetic railgun.
As students watched a video clip, Smith explained how railgun works.
"It's a gun that uses electricity to push a bullet out of the barrel without using gun powder," said Smith. "It has two copper rails and if you put several million amps through those rails with a bullet inside, it will push it out very fast - much faster than you can get with a gun charge. Here's one of the projectiles we shot. You can see how hot it is because of the speed. The friction of the air is making it hot and it's going about mach five or six at this point."
As an explosion filled the video screen when the projectile hit a watermelon target, a surprised student said, "you hit a watermelon at mach six!"
Immediately after the brief, students began designing, building and testing their own technological projects.
The Navy mentors are working with 18 teachers from five Virginia middle school systems throughout the week to challenge students with scenarios mimicking real engineering problems.
"It is amazing to watch the excitement of the kids when they complete a mission, or when they learn a new concept," said Aimee Ketner, an NSWCDD Asymmetric Defense Systems Department engineer. "I am excited to provide the kids with my perspective and present them with information on how to pursue their interests."
"Getting our kids at the middle-school age to see the fun of discovery and critical thinking is the right step to getting them to want to learn and do more," said Thomas Holland, an NSWCDD Engagement Systems Department senior engineer. "One of the students I mentored once told me that the program, 'made me want to know about things I never wanted to know about before.' You can't beat that. Inspiring our next generation of scientific leaders is a way for me to give back and I am very proud to be part of this effort."
The program teams up teachers with practicing scientists and engineers such as Ketner and Holland from the mentor-rich environment at the Naval Warfare Centers. During the school year, science and math themes featuring robotics problems are integrated throughout the curriculum.
Moreover, the College of William and Mary impacted VDP and the summer camp by developing a curriculum for students who learn about STEM at military bases and providing training to Navy Warfare Center mentors. NDEP's VDP process is more than students learning how to program robots or build, assemble and demonstrate the projects. It's also about team building and is all inclusive.
"It is important to provide encouragement and stimulation to our young people regarding the field of science," said Bachman, an NSWCDD Human Performance in Simulation lead engineer. "The working environment experience where students can sense the why, what and how things are done through interaction with scientists and engineers can benefit them when making their future career decisions."
NDEP VDP originated under the Office of Naval Research (ONR) N-STAR (Naval Research - Science and Technology for America's Readiness), a science and technology workforce development program launched in 2004 by the Office of Naval Research. It was initiated to show a diversity of pre-teens and teens that math, science and engineering are fascinating, fun and socially relevant.
Since its inception, VDP's ultimate goal has been to establish educational outreach programs at other Navy research and development centers throughout the country.
The initiative could eventually expand beyond the Navy and evolve into a national demonstration project encompassing all Department of Defense laboratories in a sustained effort to secure the long-term competitiveness of America's science and technology workforce by hooking more kids on math and science at an earlier age. As a result, the number of students earning university degrees in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology is expected to exponentially increase.
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