Engineering the future, in 500 words or less
By Jennifer Aldridge
WIESBADEN, Germany -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District challenged Wiesbaden Middle School students to explain, in 500 words or less, why they are interested in pursuing science, technology, engineering and math 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 Department of Defense Dependents Schools 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, Europe District leaders and subject matter experts hosted the trio here Nov. 19.
Identifying students that have an interest in STEM and helping them develop their interest is a priority for Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, USACE commanding general and Chief of Engineers. This event was an opportunity for Europe District to partner with the middle school to inspire young students to pursue STEM, 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."
This was the start of a new program, Hemphill said, as he welcomed the winners and their principal, Susan Hargis.
"We had a STEM essay contest at the middle school, one for each grade, to identify students who have an interest in STEM," he said. "This was an opportunity to work with the school and bring the winning students into the district to see what engineers do on a day-to-day basis."
Hemphill kicked off STEM Adopt a Student Day with a mock ribbon-cutting ceremony and an awards presentation. This was followed by an informal question-and-answer session with Hemphill and Tim Hess, the district's event champion and Missile Defense Agency Program chief.
During the Q&A, Isabella asked district leaders what courses she should focus on to prepare for an engineering degree. The answer was, unanimously, science and math. As Isabella approaches high school, she plans to take the prescribed STEM courses and some electives, she said.
"I am going to take computer science classes, something to help me get familiar with making models on computers," she said. "I think most high schools also have a robotics club, so that would help me a lot."
Later, six district experts spoke on topics ranging from environmental protection and humanitarian assistance to mining engineering and missile defense.
Tara Clark, a district MDA mechanical engineer, and Keith Martin, an MDA project manager, provided a snapshot of their work on Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense projects, designed to protect NATO allies in Europe. They also showed a missile-intercept test video and shared a link to "The Interceptor," MDA's video game. Later, Chuck, the seventh-grade winner, said the MDA presentation was his favorite part of the day.
"MDA was cool because they are blowing stuff up, so that is always fun," he said.
Following the discussion on intercepting missiles in outer space, Jason Cade, a licensed mining engineer and district project manager, spoke about his experience blowing things up underground. Cade described his varied professional experience working on mines, tunnels, bridges, roads, quarries and infrastructure. He said his engineering degree has afforded him the chance to travel the world.
"Working in Korea, Germany and the U.S. has allowed me to be what I always wanted to be, a world traveler," he said.
To give the students a feel for the breadth of the district's mission requirements and expertise, Jennifer Schmeltzle, a special projects engineer, discussed her job working throughout West Africa, the Balkans and the Baltics. A civil engineer, Schmeltzle joined USACE as a Department of the Army intern after graduating college. Currently, she manages the construction of health clinics, libraries, schools, a deaf center, an amputee care center and a garbage collection center in Europe and Africa. These projects are executed through U.S. European Command and Africa Command humanitarian-assistance programs.
Afterward, during a lunch break, Isabella said USACE's special projects interested her the most.
"I think it is impressive that you use your knowledge, not only to protect America, but to help other countries by building schools and libraries," she said. "You help everyone in the world."
The suite of presenters was rounded out by Vanessa Pepi and Lisa Scott, Environmental Branch project managers. Pepi discussed her work with protected animal populations, including turtles, birds and bats, while Scott highlighted the importance of environmental sampling and remediation, or cleanup.
As the presentations concluded, Chuck looked down at the slew of notes on his page and said he learned a lot about what everyone at the Corps of Engineers is doing.
"There are so many mixtures; there isn't just one main thing the Corps does," he said.
Although a lot of information was presented, the students asked questions and took notes, said Erika McCormick, an event organizer and member of the district's Environmental Branch.
"I was very impressed with their attentiveness and willingness to engage in conversation and activities," she said. "Chuck, Pete and Isabella represented their community and school extremely well."
After a short break -- for juice and cookie s-- it was time for a hands-on activity. McCormick led the students in an environmental sampling exercise. She started off by dressing them in personal protective equipment. It is critical to wear safety gear when sampling soil and water for environmental contamination, McCormick explained.
She also asked the students to select nicknames, to make the activity light-hearted. Once "Squishy Ducklings" (Pete), "Chuckie" (Chuck), and "Phantasmagnia" (Isabella) collected their equipment, they headed outside to dig and bail samples.
Each student collected soil and groundwater. They worked as a team to record their samples, just like McCormick and her colleagues do on USACE project sites.
According to Pete, his sixth-grade science class hasn't done anything similar to this activity.
"I like working with dirt and figuring out what compounds are in it," he said.
The day culminated with a tour of an active USACE construction site. Jay Martinek, a district project engineer at Clay Kaserne, met the students to discuss the evolution of engineering and share plans for the parking structure, sports fields and Consolidated Intelligence Center, currently under construction.
After equipping the students with hard hats and safety vests, Martinek escorted them to the top of a USACE-built parking structure for a bird's-eye view of the construction site. Last year, U.S. Army Europe headquarters moved from Heidelberg to Wiesbaden, adding more than 2,500 Soldiers, civilians and family members to the community here. USACE constructed a 12-story park house to help accommodate the growing installation. Now the district is constructing an eight-story, 600 parking-space garage, adjacent to the completed garage, to further combat parking congestion on base.
As Martinek led the tour, he pointed out another key Wiesbaden transformation project, Newman Village Housing Area. Martinek was responsible for bringing 326 single-family and duplex townhouses to fruition, as the lead project engineer. Today, one of the homes belongs to Chuck and his family.
"Thank you for making my new house awesome," he said to Martinek.
When the tour concluded, the students were eager to talk about their day with USACE. It was not only educational, but really fun and exciting, Isabella said.
"It made me feel even more excited to become an engineer. But now that I know about all the different fields, I want to explore them more before I decide what kind of engineering I want to go into. Nothing is set in stone," she said.
In middle school, it can be difficult to settle on a particular career, but Isabella, Chuck and Pete seem to have their minds set on engineering.
"I wanted to be so many things when I was younger like an astronaut, grocery bagger, soccer player, physician, and even, an adventurer. But there has been one profession that always made my head spin and sparked my fascination," Pete wrote, in his essay. "I would like to be an engineer when I am older because I think it is the most interesting thing in the whole world."