Defense Media Network

USACE STEM Partnerships on the Rise

Needing the best and brightest

“In 2009-10, we hired an incredible number of interns to make sure we are building the bench and continue to do that. We will hire 120 Army-funded interns this year and probably another 300 or more at the district level, working in many different STEM occupations. I can’t say exactly what we will need in 10 or 20 years, but the fact we did not do as much hiring in the 1990s is catching up with us, creating a bathtub effect.”

“… If you teach a teacher,” said ERDC’s Peggy Wright, Ph.D., “who then takes [STEM materials] to three classes with 20 students each every year, it really multiplies your resources.”

Peggy Wright, Ph.D., assistant director for Human Capital at USACE’s Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), said STEM is addressed under USACE efforts to recruit and retain the best and brightest.

“ERDC historically has had a strong STEM program – doing STEM before STEM was cool, so to speak. I actually came on as a STEM student intern,” she said, adding she was asked to return to ERDC and stand up the first full-time Human Capital Program in January 2010. “So we’re now into our fourth year, with both DoD and Army funding for STEM, which has helped us a lot.

“We already were going into the schools to help teachers with instruction, helping with science fairs, and hiring 300 STEM students a year. With the additional funding, we’ve implemented a more complete program. Instead of doing a little bit of one thing and then another, we now have one office in charge of STEM outreach. We’ve also set up a program to reach kids – not just at the college level or through science fairs, but K-6, then middle schools, then high schools – leading to summer employment and helping us select the best and brightest STEM minds.”

A key to developing greater interest in STEM is to add activities at the K-6 level, Wright said, citing her fourth-grade teacher as sparking her own ultimate involvement in computer science. The Department of Commerce recently reported four out of five STEM majors in college decided to take that career route while still in high school, making it all the more important to spark interest among elementary and middle school students, giving them a reason to take STEM foundation courses in high school.

“If you make the harder math and science courses interesting – starting in grammar school – then they are more likely to take those classes in high school,” Wright said. “We have a program bringing science and math teachers to workshops at three sites.

“They study a lot of different topics, interact with our scientists and engineers, who are in the classes to answer any questions, and are given material to take back to their classrooms. They also can call on ERDC later to bring real-life, hands-on activities into the classroom to make it more real for the students. If you teach a teacher, who then takes that to three classes with 20 students each every year, it really multiplies your resources.”

The Pacific Ocean Division (POD) also has had a long-standing commitment to expanding STEM education at all levels, according to POD’s STEM coordinator Riki Iwasaki, who is a senior technical manager in the POD Regional Business Directorate.

“The entire Pacific Ocean Division, which includes the division headquarters and four diverse districts serving the Asia-Pacific region, is fully engaged in a variety of STEM-related activities. Our initiatives have been ongoing for years; working with the youth in our local communities as mentors, teachers, coaches, and leaders, has become part of our business culture,” he said.

“This is not only about students in schools; we have also established relationships with organizations such as the Boy Scouts and American Heritage Girls and participate in state and regional events, such as the FIRST® LEGO® League robotics competition, Science Olympiad, and state science fair judging. We also place booths at various career fairs in the private sector.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...