An anxious fifth grader looks at the gym floor before raising his head and with a quiet voice begins telling Shannon Webb, a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, about his elementary school science fair project last March. Webb smiles and nods encouragingly, with the empathy of someone who’s been in this student’s shoes.
“Being a judge was fun and exciting and allowed me to get to ask the questions I had when I participated in them (science fairs),” Webb said. “I can remember being in their positions and being so nervous.”
Webb is just one among many at the Huntsville Center who, over the years, has felt called to reach out to local schools to reinforce the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields to the nation’s future. Huntsville Center has participated in in close to 20 such STEM events in the last three years.
Only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career, according to the STEM U.S. Department of Education web site. Among those who do go to college to pursue a STEM career, it is estimated only half eventually end up in an actual STEM occupation.
John Nevels, a structural engineer, has volunteered at past STEM education outreach events to talk about explosives safety where he shared cannonball fragments from blast demonstrations done as part of his work at Huntsville Center.
“It’s important to support STEM events for children because they are the ones who will take all of our respective fields to the next level,” Nevels said following his participation in an elementary school STEM fair in 2015. “They are the ones who will carry on and advance what we do in our careers, keeping us at the cutting edge as a nation. We’ve got to keep them interested and hopefully these STEM events can help out with that.”
While cultivating the next generation of scientists and engineers is important to advancing knowledge in those fields, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Defense believes increasing the ranks of STEM seeking students is vital to national defense.
The DOD is the largest employer of scientists and engineers in the nation, according to its STEM web site. Ensuring a growing pool of developing STEM talent is imperative to meeting the DOD’s overall task of defending the country from threats foreign and domestic.
While STEM occupations are predicted to be only 5 percent of all jobs by 2018, they are critical to continued economic competitiveness, innovation, economic growth and productivity, according literature published by USACE.
And educators like Jacqueline Smith, a fifth and sixth grade STEM lab teacher at Mill Creek Elementary in Huntsville, appreciate the efforts of Huntsville Center volunteers for the immediate impact they can have in a young person’s life today. She calls the experience of meeting STEM professional “priceless.”
“They get to see real life examples of how people use STEM in their everyday work,” Smith said. “They get to see all the ways STEM is used throughout the world.”
STEM outreach continues to be an important companion to Huntsville Center’s mission statement that says it will provide, “specialized technical expertise, global engineering solutions, and cutting edge innovations.”
Meeting the goals of that mission will require a rising generation of American students with a commitment to becoming well versed in the world of STEM.