Students Take on Navy Missions and Prepare for Future Careers with STEM


Students operate the Army Talon Ordnance Disposal Robot, mastering their skills on a robot designed to defeat counter-improvised explosive device at the Virginia Demonstration Project STEM summer academy at King George Middle School, King George, Virginia.
Students operate the Army Talon Ordnance Disposal Robot, mastering their skills on a robot designed to defeat counter-improvised explosive device at the Virginia Demonstration Project STEM summer academy at King George Middle School, King George, Virginia.

KING GEORGE, Va. - (NNS) - Teams of middle school students deployed robots they built and programmed to complete fictitious Navy missions at the Virginia Demonstration Project (VDP) Summer Academy from June 22-26.

The students - and their parents, teachers, and mentors - believe that the same science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills applied to the complex scenarios will give them control over their careers, income, and potential to make a positive impact for the United States and the Department of Defense.

What's more, the sixth, seventh and eighth graders enjoyed controlling the same real-world robot used by U.S. warfighters to clear mines and ordnance in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In all, 96 students took turns operating the Army Talon Ordnance Disposal Robot, mastering their skills on a robot designed to defeat counter-improvised explosive devices, or CIEDs.

"It's realistic and opens a bigger perspective on how real robots works," said Meesam, a Stafford Middle School rising eight grader, who used the robot to inspect, collect, and dispose of make believe ordnance.

The robot's cameras transmitted four video feeds back to students as they operated the same remote controls used for the Xbox and Playstation video game consoles. Army engineers have also used the Wii game controller and iPod Touch.

"Students are working on LegoMindstorm robots as part of the camp challenges," said Greg Marsh, assistant VDP science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) coordinator for the College of William and Mary STEM Education Alliance. "The Talon robot is a real world example of military equipment that students use throughout camp."

The students, however, spent most of the week applying their STEM skills to solve problems of Navy interest at the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) sponsored event.

Their mentors - 17 Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) scientists and engineers - teamed up with 17 middle school teachers to challenge students throughout the week with scenarios mimicking real engineering problems.

"To me, the most wonderful thing was to see the excitement build in some of the students. Most were eager and ready to go, but a few were hesitant to jump in," said academy coordinator and NSWCDD engineer Scott Gingrich. "One student in particular had not had much experience with computers or robots, but after running the big mine-retrieval robot through its paces, she was positively eager to try her hand at the Lego robotics missions."

Parents were invited to watch their children deploy robots on ten missions encompassing real life Navy experiences such as mine sweeping, delivering weapons to warships, rescuing swimmers, and rescuing ships.

The VDP STEM Academy runs a parallel junior mentor program where nine high school students, an NSWCDD scientist or engineer mentor, and a middle school teacher engage students in advanced robotic missions, leadership roles, and presentation skills.

The junior mentors helped set up the robotics challenge and shared their knowledge with academy students. They also assisted with judging whether student teams successfully completed their missions.

"I want to be an engineer and thought it (junior mentoring) would be a good way to learn more about STEM," said Ashley, one of the junior mentors, speaking to parents gathered in an auditorium for briefings that included advice on exploring potential STEM careers paths for their children.

The students represented the Dahlgren School at Naval Support Facility South Potomac, Fredericksburg public schools, and King George, Spotsylvania, and Stafford counties in Virginia.

"NSWCDD's STEM outreach efforts have been evaluated by the STEM Education Alliance at the College of William and Mary throughout the ten year program," said Gail Hardinge, executive director for the College of Williams and Mary STEM Education Alliance. "There is a wealth of research demonstrating the impact of scientist and engineer mentoring - how virtual mentoring compares to face-to-face mentoring and, most importantly, how sustainable the program's influence is."

NDEP VDP originated under the Office of Naval Research N-STAR (Naval Research - Science and Technology for America's Readiness), a science and technology workforce development program launched in 2004. It was initiated to show a diversity of pre-teens and teens that math, science and engineering are fascinating, fun and rewarding.

Since its inception, VDP's ultimate goal has been to establish educational outreach programs at Navy research and development centers throughout the country.

"While return on investment is challenging to determine in complex social settings, the positive Influence we see four and five years after a student has participated in the program suggests that the NSWCDD's STEM outreach efforts demonstrate long-term impacts," said Hardinge.

The initiative could eventually expand beyond the Navy and evolve into a national demonstration project encompassing all Department of Defense laboratories in a sustained effort to secure the long-term competitiveness of America's science and technology workforce by hooking more kids on math and science at an earlier age.

"It is wonderful to see the light in the students' eyes when it finally 'clicks' and they understand something, or when, after many tries, they succeed in getting their robot to finish a mission," Gingrich reflected about his experience at the VDP summer academy.

Research indicates that STEM programs like VDP are contributing to the rising number of students earning university degrees in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.

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