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Middle East District Commander motivates young students through STEM

Published Jan. 16, 2020
TAM Commander COL Philip Secrist shows an example of another bridge built my the daughter of a past commander. The bridge is used routinely as an example of the bridge spanning a 12-inch gap.

TAM Commander COL Philip Secrist shows an example of another bridge built my the daughter of a past commander. The bridge is used routinely as an example of the bridge spanning a 12-inch gap.

TAM Commander COL Philip Secrist leads the students in the weight bearing tests for each team's bridge, as one team's fails on camera.

TAM Commander COL Philip Secrist leads the students in the weight bearing tests for each team's bridge, as one team's fails on camera.

USACE Middle East District Commander COL Philip Secrist assist members of Team echo during the bridge build competition at STARBASE Academy, in Winchester, Va., by pointing out comparative strengths of various shapes.

USACE Middle East District Commander COL Philip Secrist assist members of Team echo during the bridge build competition at STARBASE Academy, in Winchester, Va., by pointing out comparative strengths of various shapes.

TAM Commander COL Philip Secrist at the start of the testing phase of the bridge build activity, looking over the various submissions.

TAM Commander COL Philip Secrist at the start of the testing phase of the bridge build activity, looking over the various submissions.

Middle East District Commander Col. Philip Secrist facilitated STEM-generated smiles, grins and gasps of excitement during his visit to STARBASE Academy in Winchester, Va., on 10 JAN.

STARBASE Academy is a Department of Defense program, focused on elementary students, designed to instill interest in exploring Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) as they continue their education. These academies serve students that are historically under-represented in STEM -- students who live in inner cities or rural locations, and are socio-economically disadvantaged, low in academic performance or have a disability are in the target group, including all Frederick County, Virginia schools.

The Winchester academy, the only STARBASE Academy in Virginia, is housed at the Virginia National Guard Cherry-Beasley Readiness Center and hosts two groups up to 28 students 50 weeks per year. The groups attend for a full school week, during which students are encouraged to set goals and achieve them. Guest speakers from STEM professions are scheduled for each session and USACE Winchester volunteers fill this role several times per quarter.

All STARBASE instructors, guest speakers and students use call signs instead of names, including Secrist, called COL FLIP, who spent the morning with Virginia Avenue Charlotte DeHart Elementary School’s 4th grade students on Day 4 of week at STARBASE.

Secrist started by asking, “What does STEM stand for,” and confirmed each guess of Science, Technology and Mathematics right away, but made the students repeat ‘Engineering’ several times, each louder than the time before.

After officially introducing himself as COL FLIP, he said, “Engineering is what I love, it’s what I’m trained and educated for and I absolutely love it. One reason I love engineering is because I like to have standard, definite answers to questions. For instance, what is 2 + 2? It always equals 4. The answer doesn’t depend on how you feel that day. The answer is a definite 4.

“Engineering allows me to do a whole lot of cool stuff,” which led him into several photos and descriptions of the cool stuff he’s done during 28 years in the Army and all over the world.

“Who knows who Albert Einstein is,” COL FLIP asked, pointing to a large illustration on the wall. Several hands went up and one student blurted out, “He’s the one who invented E=MC2.” 

COL FLIP confirmed that Einstein is closely linked to that equation, and then shared this quote from Einstein: “Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been.”

Engineers look at problems and develop solutions to those problems even when there is nothing right in front of them.

After describing several large programs he worked throughout his career, he asked what the students thought was the most fun part of his job. Many students responded with a resounding ‘blowing stuff up!’

COL FLIP agreed that was pretty cool, but asked if they’d consider this: “Imagine driving by a building or some facility that you had a hand in building. Something that used to be a flat piece of land that now has a structure on it and knowing you helped make that happen. That’s pretty cool too,” the colonel said.

Before starting the teams on their building activity, COL FLIP discussed other subjects important to an engineering career, along with Math and Science. “You’ll definitely need English so that you’ll be able to communicate with your team. It takes all kinds of engineers working together to accomplish our projects.”

Secrist introduced the day’s activity – building a bridge out of popsicle sticks and hot glue – that would be tested and compared to all bridges in the class to see which could hold the most weight. Students worked in small teams to design and then construct bridges according to their team’s design.

During testing, each bridge held some weight, even bridges that were presumed weak by other students. But they all held between 7.5 and 48 pounds.  

Secrist closed with a question that left the students thinking. “What do you think would be the best job to have?” After guesses from all over the board, he said, there is not one answer that is right for everyone, but, “The best job to have is the one that you enjoy.”