US Defense Department Festival Sparks Interest in Science, Engineering

Students conduct a science experiment at a Defense Department exhibit at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC, April 15, 2016

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Washington, DC – Students of all ages keen on science, technology, engineering and mathematics enjoyed a bit of futuristic fun at the USA Science and Engineering Festival held here April 15-17.

Facilitators, faculty and midshipmen from the Naval Academy and others from across the Defense Department hosted the biennial outreach event, the nation’s largest of its kind, drawing some 350,000 participants.

Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Research Melissa Flagg said the DoD has long been one of the largest funders and employers in the nation’s science and technology industries.

“This is an opportunity to make sure that the future is as solid as we are right now,” she said. [It’s] an opportunity to reach people where they are; to try to find the brightest minds, excite them about DoD science and engineering, and to let them understand that there are a lot of ways that you can do science and engineering with the military.”

Getting Young People Interested in STEM

She noted the Air Force Research Lab has made great strides in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields, citing developments in the use of directed energy as one example — specifically, harnessing microwaves to scramble adversarial computer activities.

“If you think about wanting to stop someone from hacking you or from doing different kinds of cyber activities, the Air Force Research Lab has actually found a way to just fly over and make the computer stop,” she said. “You might think that video games and programming is just something you do for fun, but for us, we want those kids to know that they can grow up and … be a scientist and engineer with the Department of Defense and do cool stuff like this.”

The Army Research Laboratory is exploring emerging robotics technologies that enable pilots and tank operators to see with the precision of machines, Flagg said.

“It may seem like a toy that you’re remote piloting … but it’s also the future of national security,” she said. “The Army Research Lab is making that happen, right at the forefront of making sure that the warfighter of the future comes home safe.”

Similarly, the Naval Research Laboratory, she said, can make a 3-D printed Millennium Falcon, which through emerging technology could be piloted by anyone.

“What we see is the future of the Department of Defense,” Flagg said. “DoD STEM gives us the opportunity to go from a plastic Millennium Falcon to someone in the Air Force actually piloting an unmanned aerial vehicle maybe 1,000 miles away.”

The Naval Academy’s STEM Center booth alone drew several thousand festival attendees, who experienced hands-on, interactive demonstrations including zip-line engineering, robotics and rocket-launching technologies.

Midshipman Rachel Vusiek said the event targets and helps students lacking support or resources for a good foundational STEM program, and sustains a critical interest in these fields.

“A lot of students initially have interest, and that kind of wanes off when they get older so we’re trying to get the roots started,” Vusiek said.

Inspiring Young Minds

She explained that students interact and observe their near-peers’ interest in STEM education, which through cyber, robotics, and mental puzzles, inspire ideas to leverage those skills, whether in art, music, or in other traditionally “non-scientific” realms.

“There’s always a STEM connection,” Vusiek said.

The midshipmen and faculty members are taking the demonstrations to underrepresented STEM areas such as Detroit; Tulsa, Oklahoma; San Diego and Dallas, among other cities.

And, Vusiek said, the outreach and engagement benefits extend beyond the children.

“We get the benefit of having interaction with the kids, working on public speaking skills, and learning how to make the most of time and accomplish goals, which is critical for people who are going to become officers,” she said.

Going a step beyond a basic arts-and-crafts presentation through critical thinking and reverse engineering leaves a far-greater impression on the science hopefuls who range in age from about 3 to 18 years old, Vusiek said.

“You identify a need and work backwards from what the function is to how you accomplish that function,” she said. “I think that’s critical at any understanding of STEM.”

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Air Force Maj. Ben Bennett said young attendees seemed most impressed with tactile elements of the demonstrations, from special operations to materiel manufacturing, and space components.

“They’re seeing what it’s like to be a combat military member and … if they can touch it or see it or hear or have some other sensory input, that’s what they’re going to want to become,” Bennett said. “In the Air Force and all the military, we need people that can see the future.”

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