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Scholarship STEMS from love of engineering

Published July 14, 2020
Middle East District Engineering Division Branch Chief Tom Stephenson shares his inspiration for establishing a scholarship for students interested in pursuing STEM careers during the presentation to the first recipient, Zachary Harner.

Middle East District Engineering Division Branch Chief Tom Stephenson shares his inspiration for establishing a scholarship for students interested in pursuing STEM careers during the presentation to the first recipient, Zachary Harner.

Zachary Harner was the first graduating senior to receive the STEM of Jesse scholarship, initiated by the Middle East District's Tom Stephenson. Harner's love of an engineering challenge inspired the design of his graduation cap which included two modified small message boards and a dissected pair of sunglasses that he connected and programmed with messages that he controlled from his phone.

Zachary Harner was the first graduating senior to receive the STEM of Jesse scholarship, initiated by the Middle East District's Tom Stephenson. Harner's love of an engineering challenge inspired the design of his graduation cap which included two modified small message boards and a dissected pair of sunglasses that he connected and programmed with messages that he controlled from his phone.

When it comes to supporting the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, the Middle East District’s Tom Stephenson puts his money where his mouth is.

Two years ago, Stephenson established a scholarship for students interested in STEM careers. This year, the first two students applied and the first ever was presented recently at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

This scholarship is intended to help support graduates who intend to pursue a career in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math; better known as STEM. The goal is that they would be researchers and designers to improve existing technologies and develop new ones.

Stephenson, a registered professional engineer and branch chief for Engineering Division’s Building Systems Design Branch, was certain he wanted to be an engineer since he started high school. By the time he entered college, he had narrowed it down to the Mechanical Engineering tract and he never wavered.

“I had talked to several engineers with ALCOA, the company my father worked for, and mechanical engineering sounded right up my lane,” he said.

Born in Knoxville, TN., Stephenson lived in New York, Texas and Pennsylvania before moving to Winchester, Va., in 1977. “I have not left nor do I particularly have any desire to leave.  My wife is a Winchester area native and we are pretty well rooted in the area.”

He came to the Corps of Engineers after working in private industry as a plant engineer for two different manufacturers and as a supervisor for a machine shop here in Winchester. “I also worked for a small Mechanical Engineering firm here that really got me in to the HVAC side of Mechanical Engineering and I have been there ever since.”

A former employer told Stephenson about potentially working for USACE on a temporary basis. “I was interviewed and hired in March 1992. The rest, as they say, is history and I’ve never left.”

Stephenson knows first-hand the need for well-rounded engineers and scientists. “I see the lack of good, qualified candidates and have had to advertise as many as five times for one position and came up with very few qualified candidates,” he said. “Of the few that are qualified, I would classify very few as high caliber. Sometimes lists have only four applicants and maybe only one is interested and still may not be a good fit for the position.”

There’s a lot of discussion about the causes of the STEM shortage but few disagree that the shortage exists. Stephenson’s hiring experiences are just a microcosm of the nationwide problem in hiring for STEM positions, so he created this scholarship.

He calls it the STEM of Jesse and it is open to Mountain View Christian Academy students.

“I have always been impressed by the quality of students graduating from this school, connected to the church I’ve been associated with for 35 years,” he said. “I have worked with many of the students in a class setting, as a teacher, and have seen the eagerness in their eyes to take on a new challenge.  This country needs more top quality engineers, scientists and technically oriented workers if we are going to stand a chance of being the world leader in these fields.  Schools like MVCA produce that type of individual; solidly grounded in God’s world, educated in an environment that promotes family, learning and doing your best.

“The STEM graduates have gone on to do great things. One went to Virginia Tech and was working on artificial intelligence projects while an undergraduate mechanical engineer,” he said. “And now he and his brother have gone on to graduate school. I have worked with these students for the past 28 years and I really wanted to help give them another path to follow in life.”

This year’s recipient, Zachary Harner, said he was very thankful for this scholarship in helping with his college tuition. “I want a career that involves constant learning, engineering, problem-solving, and one that allows for plenty of creativity.  I’m considering Forensic Sciences, Mechanical Engineering or Computer Hardware Engineering.”

Stephenson said his experience since setting up this scholarship involves non-stop learning. “I could set it up as a simple annuity or a variable annuity … The one that I am looking at really hard is one that will allow others to add to the principle, thus increasing the amount of the scholarship.  The initial set up will be a guaranteed distribution amount of $5,000.”

He is also making arrangements through his will to ensure that it will continue to be presented long after he’s gone or if the school happens to cease operating. There are myriad questions and situations to be resolved connecting it to his estate.

“Engineering has been a good, fulfilling career for me and there is a desperate need for more top quality engineers. As a supervisor for the Corps, I am in the position to hire engineers to keep my staff up to the levels it needs to be. Having tried to find good quality candidates has shown me that there is a definite shortage in all disciplines.  This is my way of hopefully getting more top quality Engineers in the field and also being able to give back to MVCA for the 'education' I have received from these students.”