PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Even though statistical reports have shown the United States faces about a 20-percent high school dropout rate with many students not showing an aptitude for the sciences, this was not the case at the 26th Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA) Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) conference.
Pre-college students and engineering majors from colleges and universities from New Jersey to Massachusetts were invited to learn more about careers in science, technology, engineering and math from military and civilian mentors at the BEYA STEM Global Competitiveness Conference Mentorship Program, Feb. 17, 2012.
"Last year, we had 38 mentors and 140 students. This year we just about doubled that with 70 mentors and 225 students," said retired Vice Adm. Anthony Winn, co-chair with retired Vice Adm. Walter Davis of the BEYA Stars & Stripes Mentoring Committee.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math -- an acronym that the country and others around the world have picked up to talk about this particular area where young men and women are needed to continue to focus and earn degrees and support the nation.
For some of the students, this was their first opportunity to speak directly to a senior role model about STEM-related studies, leadership, professional development and serving the nation, but many already had a plan and knew where they were going.
Janelle Wellons, a high school student from New Jersey, is one of those considering an engineering future in the Army.
"I'm looking at computer engineering right now, but I'm not so sure I like coding that much. I definitely like hands-on things like mechanical engineering and I also like learning about the body so I'm into biochemical engineering, also," Wellons said.
"Janelle has been accepted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology," said her mother, Kim Wellons.
"My mom's cousin is a judge and he knows I'm interested in engineering so I thought this would be a great opportunity for me. He told his friend, Vice Adm. Winn, so they invited me here.
"I want to learn from somebody who's actually in the field because this will tell me if this is really the right thing for me," Wellons said.
Joe Rule currently is at Bishop Shanahan High in Downingtown, Pa.
"I'm interested in becoming an engineer because my whole life I've really liked airplanes. (Through my mom I found out about aeronautical) so I started doing research into that and I learned about aerospace and aeronautical (engineering) is what I want to do … I really like math, I really like science," said Rule who is looking at attending Penn State and Villanova.
The Naval Academy, he said, visited his school.
"So I put down my email address and a few months later I got an email from Rob Bender who's affiliated with the Navy, inviting me to this conference.
"I'd like to see the type of engineering they do in the military and the kind of stress they're put under, and some of the things they have to do with day-to-day life as an engineer in the military," Rule said.
Steven Rule, Joe's father, also came to the conference.
"This is great. My son is filling out his application for Air Force ROTC. This ability to be exposed to this type of knowledge transfer before they even make that investment, if this is something they want to do, I think it's great that they can talk to people that are doing it," said Rule, proudly.
The BEYA conference and the Mentorship Program gives Army leaders the opportunity to encourage students by talking about:
- The more than 11,000 engineers and scientists at eight Army laboratories and research centers, many of whom are the leading experts in their fields.
- Army ROTC summer internship programs, which are a great way to acquire the skills and specialized training needed for an Army career.
- Engineers help the Army and the nation in building structures, developing civil works programs, controlling waterways, working with natural resources, as well as providing combat support on the battlefield.
- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is one of the world's premier design and construction agencies, consisting of more than 30,000 civilian and 750 military engineers.
- Army engineers design the facilities and the infrastructure on military installations.
- Engineers manage construction, operations, and maintenance of the nation's inland waterways, coastal harbors, large dams constructed for flood control, water supply and environmental quality.
During the first mentoring session, Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1, spoke with six students about his career.
Bostick works with Thomas R. Lamont, assistant secretary of the Army (Manpower & Reserve Affairs) to help manage the 1.1 million Soldiers and almost 300,000 civilians that serve in the Army and support their families.
"I wanted to attend a military college, but you needed a congressional nomination and I couldn't get one of those. And then a retired general came to my school and told me they have presidential nominations and since my father was in the military, I could compete for that.
"So if I not had him there, I would probably not be here to speak with you as a senior general officer," he said.
Mentors, Bostick said, help give students and veterans an opportunity, but it's important to meet with enough different mentors in order to learn about other choices that may be of interest.
Joan T. Hughes, sitting in the same conversation, is Navy director of Operations and assistant for administration.
"The first thing that a mentor helps you to do is figure out what is your passion, what are your interests in, what makes you happy and one of the things you need to do is, if you want to be an engineer, what do you need to take. A lot of times those decisions come early on in your life, usually back in 8th grade. A mentor can help you decide what tools you need to get to where you want to go," Hughes said.
"So do any of you know what you want to do?" asked Bostick.
"Well, after high school, I plan on going to a four-year college and I want to do pre-med and then after that I want to go into a medical school and I want to become a pediatrician and if possible I want to be a pediatric cardiologist," said Andreisy Borges, a senior at a Massachusetts high school.
"I've been accepted to the University of Massachusetts, but I'm waiting for my top choice, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science," she said.
Borges came to the BEYA conference last year. The person who ran that, she said, was Darian Hendricks at MIT, who told her about the Mentorship Program this year. She came down to Philadelphia with a group from high schools and colleges in her area.
"You know a lot more at your young age than I ever did," Bostick said. "This is wonderful.
"I wanted to be a carpenter. I took woodworking for four years and I really enjoyed being a carpenter and I figured that's what I was going to do.
Bostick, though, was always good in math. So after taking courses in math, science and engineering at West Point, he continued on to earn a masters degree in both civil and mechanical engineering.
"Keep in mind," said Hughes, "that what you're thinking about today may change over time, but just because you don't make the plan that you had … understand that if something goes wrong and it doesn't work out, it may be a little setback, but I always say that a setback is an opportunity for a comeback. So, throughout your life, what you need to do is learn from things that go wrong. It's an opportunity to take stock of what went well, what didn't go well, and what can I change to make it better."
"That's a really good point," Bostick said. "There are some folks who do really what they want to do and then once they start doing it, for whatever reason, they change their mind. Either the grades aren't working out or the workload is something different than they thought, or they decide they really don't have the passion for it. You really need a passion in life for whatever you're doing."
The Mentoring Program works both ways. It also gives senior military personnel (general officers and senior civilian executives) an opportunity to serve as role models for high school and college students, as well as a number of veterans who may be interested in going back to school, particularly to study science, technology, engineering or math.
"Part of this is all the leaders here are giving back and doing what's right for our nation to help the next generation find their way," Bostick said.
The Army is high-tech, he said.
"So we need young Soldiers that have an aptitude for the sciences and math and engineering, and while they all don't need to be an engineer, nor would we want everyone to be an engineer, we do appreciate the background that these youngsters can bring to the fight," Bostick said.
In the Corps of Engineers, he said, they have hydraulic engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and the need for information technologists.
"It's absolutely true that we have fallen behind other countries … our ability to produce those that have the proclivity to study science, technology, engineering and math and earn degrees in those areas.
"But it starts earlier than high school. We don't want to lose the youngsters at the elementary school level. It's important that they understand that if they have an interest, a passion, an aptitude for working in this area, they should continue to keep that door open.
"The military provides great leaders. We do two things every day: we train Soldiers and we grow leaders. And a lot of what this is about is showing the leadership of our military, of our Army, in how leadership is important, starting at a very young age, so developing those skills of leadership in whatever profession they choose to pursue.
"I think you could look at many areas, whether it's engineering, science, research, the medical field -- the Army, as well as the other services, through 10 years of war, have had the opportunity to really advance where we are in the care of our Soldiers, our equipment and the research and development that's necessary to make sure that this Army is going to be and remains the best Army in the world.
"That takes a significant amount of energy and people and time and money, but mostly it takes people with ingenuity and creativity and a willingness to chase their dreams, chase their passion and to help solve very difficult problems," Bostick said.
Following the mentoring session, at the 7th Annual Stars and Stripes Dinner, military and civilian personnel serving in the armed forces were honored for their contributions to the African American community.
The Stars and Stripes Dinner is one of the nation's largest events honoring both active and retired African American admirals, generals and members of the Senior Executive Service. The U.S. Marine Corps planned and hosted the 2012 Stars and Stripes Dinner. The agenda included presentation of awards for each Service. In conjunction with the dinner, Career Communications Group published a special Stars and Stripes Magazine honoring African American General Officers and Senior Executive Service members by name.