By Kerry Larsen and Dr. Richard Price
Engineer Research and Development Center
In 2010, Dr. Peggy Wright was appointed by Dr. Jeffery Holland, director of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), as the assistant director for Human Capital (HC), and was tasked with building and implementing an outstanding program for student outreach in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Since then, Wright has not looked back. She hired Rick Tillotson, a retired local school principal, to provide coordination and focus to the outreach program at ERDC headquarters – and the location of four of its labs – in Vicksburg, Miss. She also obtained resources from both the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) and Army Education Outreach Program (AEOP) and worked with STEM coordinators John Mudrick, Susan Koh, and Shardey Mitchell at ERDC’s locations in Champaign, Ill., Hanover, N.H., and Alexandria, Va., to implement a far-reaching program across ERDC. The STEM program now encompasses these four outreach coordinators with 614 scientists and engineers (S&Es) contributing across ERDC. The growing program has achieved 567 teacher involvements this year and has reached 10,136 students.
Teacher involvements have been one of the keys to the STEM program’s success. These activities, which make optimal use of vendors who specialize in STEM education training programs, work closely with Department of Defense (DOD) laboratories across the nation to integrate S&Es into the training process, providing instruction on modern learning tools and strategies so that teachers and S&Es located near DOD labs can successfully work together. This unique training strategy teams the educator and the STEM professional so that they benefit from one another's perspectives, experience and expertise.
Another example of successful support to teachers is the Mississippi River Course lecture series, in which S&Es from ERDC and the Corps’ Vicksburg District partner to provide technical lectures and demonstrations of engineering in action as it applies to flood control and navigation management of the Mississippi River.
A key asset to the robust STEM program at ERDC is the strong support of ERDC Director Dr. Holland. During a June visit by Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, USACE commanding general, Holland toured Bostick through the Gains in Engineering Math and Science (GEMS) camp, where the commander interacted with students on a bridge building exercise. Bostick commended both the students and their ERDC mentors on an exceptional program that he would like to see implemented around the Corps. “The country needs youngsters who study science, math, technology, and engineering,” Bostick told the group. “Sometimes it’s the harder road to walk on but it will open up doors for you and opportunities that you could never imagine . . . and it’s fun.”
One of the most successful grade school STEM programs adopted by ERDC has been Camp Invention, developed by Invent Now. ERDC provides hundreds of scholarships for underserved students to attend this week-long summer camp, which employs local teachers and allows students to explore a series of fun and innovative modules covering basic science and physics.
ERDC S&Es are also active in STEM festival exhibits, educating thousands of attendees with interactive displays and activities. At the USA Science and Engineering Festival and the annual Earth Day, both held in Washington, DC, staff from three ERDC sites assisted at the USACE exhibit with a variety of technologies to students. A highlight of the event was the Synthetic Automotive Virtual Environment (S.A.V.E.) driving simulator, developed for the Army by ERDC. The simulator allowed participants to navigate a virtual vehicle over a challenging course created for the festival.
Another STEM component involving ERDC team members centers on Army-sponsored eCYBERMISSION competitions. Free for students in grades six through nine, this is a web-based STEM competition where teams vie for state, regional and national awards while working to solve problems in their community. For the past two years, ERDC has fielded award-winning teams, and this year’s Vicksburg eCYBERMISSION team, “Floodstoppers,” won the state competition and advanced to the Southeastern Regional where they claimed second place in competition with more than 1,000 students.
ERDC has sponsored robot building teams, combining the excitement of a major sporting event with the rigors of science and technology. ERDC teams have consistently gone to the semi-finals and finals in state competitions and have won numerous awards for their sportsmanship and professionalism.
ERDC hosts short-term summer camps under the GEMS program and supports a Vicksburg District-led, week-long summer camp for 40 high school students in cooperation with the Society of American Military Engineers. In the Vicksburg-Warren School system, the administration has initiated a Scholastic Academy to foster support and activities for high school students to pursue engineering careers and, working with ERDC, has developed a semester course for students on robotics.
These K-12 STEM outreach activities compliment and provide a strong pipeline of talent for ERDC’s robust STEM college student program, which hires more than 300 students annually. These students represent 30 states and more than 70 universities nationwide.
The STEM outreach program at ERDC continues to grow with ERDC’s commitment to educational outreach in the vital fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
“ERDC provides innovative solutions for a safer, better world,” said Holland. “To remain relevant and continue providing quality support to the warfighter and the nation, we need to hire the best and the brightest. Our STEM program lets us have a hand in growing some of the best and the brightest.”
“It’s an investment, not only their future, but in our future, and that of the Corps of Engineers and our country.”