Story by Michelle Brosco Christian
Ever since Chris McDaniel was a boy, he said he was fascinated with how things worked and he liked putting things together, like Lego. Now, at 20 years old, he's got a mechanical engineering career mapped out-and it's all been paid for by the U.S. Navy.
McDaniel is just one example of how science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) initiatives are encouraging young people to enter these highly technical and often high-paying fields that have seen fewer and fewer college graduates in recent years, leading to a shortage of workers.
Participating on a robotics team at Leonardtown High School convinced McDaniel that he wanted a career in mechanical engineering. Now, as a student at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a cooperative education employee at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), Patuxent River Naval Air Station, he'll have no worries after graduating next May as he'll be working at Pax for at least three years as a requirement of the coop program.
According to Kathy Glockner, who coordinates the STEM activities at Pax River, "If you ask, many engineers say that as children they liked to take apart things." She added, "Sometimes it is the simplest things" that pique a child's interest in a STEM field. "It's important for us to work with the schools, they can't do it all themselves."
That's why the Educational Outreach program starts its interactions with children as early as fourth grade. And St. Mary's County Public Schools' Super-intendent Dr. Michael J. Martirano, a former math/science teacher, agrees with this early approach.
"We've tapped in early to turn elementary students onto math and science," he said. "It's important to provide hands-on instruction, to engage them early and then keep that spark alive."
The idea of engaging, hands-on activities runs throughout the Navy's STEM programs, from the Navy's year-round Starbase Atlantis program to an Optical Olympics program. In Starbase Atlantis, 5th graders spend five days learning about Newton's laws and aviation physics, ending with a rocket launch. In Optical Olympics, students learn about optics, reflection and lasers, eventually using geometry and lasers to power an MP3 player.
Shannon Burke, a 7th grader at St. John's School, who has participated in school STEM activities and attended a STEM camp for the second time this summer, said, "We did different robotic challenges with a topic of the Gulf oil spill. We had to make a PowerPoint, build rockets and launch a water balloon."
Similar programs are offered in Calvert and Charles counties, with the Indian Head Division-Naval Surface Warfare Center involved along with many Navy contractors, the College of Southern Maryland, the University of Maryland, College Park, and the Higher Education Center near Lexington Park.
The College of Southern Maryland is currently developing a STEM institute that will harness all of its STEM-related programs into one.
"The collaborative efforts involving STEM initiatives, education, and jobs will transform our region for future generations," said CSM President Dr. Bradley Gottfried. "From summer robotics and rocket building camps offered by Kids College, to 'Try College for a Day' fifth-grade field trips with non-stop hands-on science activities, to high school robotics competitions, CSM is providing opportunities for Southern Maryland students to explore science fields."
Often, students like Leonardtown's McDaniel, eventually work in internships or cooperative education settings. Currently, Pax River employs approximately 250 college students and about 40 high school students, said Glockner.
A key feature of the STEM Academy program is the involvement of local business and industry individuals from science, mathematics and engineering fields who serve as mentors to students. Some of these mentors provide access to their workplace and other industry sites and visit classrooms and give presentations on selected topics in mathematics, science and engineering.
Every effort is made to link the internship with the particular work addressed by the student's senior project or other research conducted in required or elective courses. In many cases, students will strive to identify summer internship experiences that offer authentic work in science, mathematics or engineering, said Glockner.
"STEM is a very strong initiative nation-wide-a national call to action-and we've taken full advantage of the fact that we are in the same county with Pax River," said Martirano.
To find out more about STEM programs, visit: Navy: www.NDEP.US/Labspax.aspx, St. Mary's Public Schools: http://divisions.smcps.org/dsaaa/advisement/stem/, or College of Southern Maryland: http://www.csmd.edu/Academics/#math.