Europe District engineers drive STEM initiative in 2013 and beyond
By Jennifer Aldridge
WIESBADEN, Germany -- Did you have a mentor growing up? Perhaps you can recall a role model, adviser or volunteer who helped steer you toward the career you have today.
Last year, more than 20 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District volunteers spent time with local students -- helping them understand the practical applications of science, technology, engineering and math; set education and career goals; and relate and communicate better with adults. As the nation celebrates Mentoring Month, it is fitting to recap the district's efforts in 2013 and encourage continued volunteer engagement in the future.
Through seven formal outreach activities, the district connected with elementary- through university-level students, in and out of the classroom, helping them identify and cultivate their interest in Army STEM careers.
SKYPE WITH SCIENCE
Using face-to-face video conferencing, Jason Cade, a district project manager, together with his Leadership Development Program teammates, coordinated an e-learning session for Wiesbaden Middle School physics students last January. Cade taught a lesson on roller-coaster engineering, discussing the physics behind the thrilling amusement ride.
The LDP team worked with Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe to identify opportunities to bolster student interest in STEM subjects. Web conferencing was a simple, convenient way to interact with the school audience, Cade said.
"Providing kids the opportunity to see why science and math are important -- it's like the light comes on and they finally understand how practicing a math problem will help them calculate the force acting upon them on a roller coaster -- it's priceless," he said. "By volunteering, we are imparting the knowledge and experiences that we have garnered through our career and helping shape young minds on the value of what we do."
In honor of National Engineers Week, district employees presented structural engineering, alternative energy and fire-protection concepts to DoDDS-Europe Wiesbaden Middle School students in February.
Lawrence Carabajal, a district structural engineer, presented a bridge-building lesson to eighth-grade science and math students. He used a hands-on approach, constructing a Leonardo da Vinci-designed wooden bridge for students to test and re-create.
Once the bridge was constructed, students were eager to test the capacity by adding textbooks, two at a time, to determine the applied load the structure could hold. Volunteers loaded the bridge with 20 textbooks until an audible crack replaced the silence in the school foyer.
Getting students excited about engineering early, in middle school, is critical, Carabajal said.
"Our country is in dire need of more scientists and engineers," he said. "The president has this STEM initiative because so much of the work is being sent overseas. We have to educate [students] and keep that work in our country."
'TAKE YOUR CHILD TO WORK DAY'
Some Wiesbaden Middle School students got a peek at engineer life during 'Take Your Child to Work Day' at district headquarters in April.
The annual event is an educational tool that took root in the U.S. and Canada two decades ago. More than 30 students attended, including four with a deployed parent and 10 children of district personnel.
Erika McCormick, a member of the current LDP team, said she volunteers at events like this because everyone shares the responsibility to prepare young adults for the future.
"If you have something worth sharing, you should share it," she said. "STEM volunteers provide kids with ideas for future STEM occupations."
THE MAGIC BEHIND THE SCIENCE
In May, Brian Temple, the district's public affairs chief and a trained magician, integrated his hobby into his day job and taught students from Aukamm Elementary School about the science behind the magic as part of the district's STEM outreach program.
Temple performed magic tricks using rope, coins, cards and flash paper, and explained the science and technology behind the production of these props.
Throughout the presentation, he played on students' excitement about magic to reveal how STEM supports the art.
It's important for schools and professional organizations to work together through creative means to show students that STEM is critical to America's future, Temple said.
"Our educators do a great job teaching our children about these elements, but then you get to bring in someone who has made a career of it, who is passionate about it, and they come and share their experiences and knowledge with these students; it's really a great marriage in that partnership," he said. "They get the traditional education and they get a lot of hands-on interaction with those of us in the Corps who are volunteering our services."
In April, district Environmental Branch colleagues Vanessa Pepi, McCormick and Nicole Silva presented Earth Day topics to more than 200 Wiesbaden Middle School students.
The three environmentalists -- a biologist, chemist and project manager -- spoke to students in grades six through eight about natural resources, green energy, deforestation, the Endangered Species Act and environmental careers.
Silva, a repeat Earth Day presenter, said she continues volunteering year-to-year because she likes to see the children inspired and excited by science.
"As a woman with a career in an engineering and science field, it is very important to encourage all children to pursue careers in the sciences," she said.
Pepi explained that she volunteers because she wouldn't be where she is today without the guidance of mentors.
"I need to pay it forward," she said.
Today, the U.S. is falling behind other countries in STEM subjects, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. U.S. students recently finished 17th in science and 25th in math in a ranking of 31 countries worldwide.
A democratic republic, like the U.S., needs involved, intelligent people to make it a great place to live, Pepi said.
"The U.S. has been in the forefront of a lot of inventions," she said. "We can only maintain that position by ensuring that the country invests in the education system, ensuring it is top-notch and available to everyone."
ADVANCING MINORITIES' INTEREST IN ENGINEERING
The district welcomed Michael Gray-Lewis, Yillian Rivera, Donatello Barrett and Tiffany Williams -- the 2013 Advancing Minorities' Interest in Engineering interns -- to Europe in June.
AMIE is a nonprofit program designed to attract, educate, graduate and place minority students in engineering careers. The district's interns, rising seniors pursuing engineering degrees from historically black colleges and universities, gained real-world experience at USACE.
Darren Walls, the district's AMIE coordinator, can trace his involvement with the program back to 1998, when he was an intern here. He wanted to explore a career with USACE. Now, in his capacity as AMIE coordinator, he mentors future engineers, helping them pursue STEM professions with the government.
Walls' evolution from mentee to mentor demonstrates the value of mentoring relationships -- both sides gain from the experience, he said.
STEM STUDENT ESSAY CONTEST
The district challenged Wiesbaden Middle School students to explain, in 500 words or less, why they are interested in pursuing STEM careers.
The winners -- Pete Greig, Chuck Oliver and Isabella Lee -- representing the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, respectively, were selected from a pool of 80 contest entrants by DoDDS-Europe officials. The essays detailed Pete's interest in robotics engineering, Chuck's love of cars and mechanical engineering, and Isabella's fascination with roller-coaster engineering. To recognize their accomplishments and celebrate their interest in STEM, district leaders and subject matter experts hosted the trio here in November.
Six district colleagues spoke on topics ranging from environmental protection and humanitarian assistance to missile defense and mining engineering.
This event was an opportunity for Europe District to partner with the middle school to inspire young students to pursue STEM within USACE and the Army, said Lt. Col. Andy Hemphill, district deputy commander.
"Our country needs lots of engineers and people who are smart and capable of performing in science and technology realms," he said. "We need them to support our economy and improve the lives of people in our nation and across the world."
MENTORING AND VOLUNTEERING IN 2014 AND BEYOND
U.S. students are falling behind their peers worldwide in STEM subjects, risking the country's future innovation and economic growth. But as an organization of engineers, USACE can help.
District leadership is focused on growing the STEM outreach program in 2014 and beyond. In the past, most of the district's volunteering and mentoring activities have centered on Wiesbaden. But just last week, the LDP team presented a Web conferencing lesson on gravity to Ansbach Elementary School students, and future activities with schools in Italy and Turkey are being explored, Hemphill said.
During National Mentoring Month and throughout the year, Hemphill encourages district colleagues to step up and follow the mentoring theme, Be Someone Who Matters to Someone Who Matters -- future engineers and STEM professionals.
Editor's note: District employees should contact Lt. Col. Charles "Andy" Hemphill, and courtesy copy their supervisor, if interested in STEM volunteer opportunities.