MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — A small group of Quantico Middle/High School students crowded around a shallow wooden box, watching in anticipation to see if their Lego robot would travel in the right direction through a toy city and offload a solar panel. At first glance, it seemed as though these students were simply playing with remote-controlled kids’ toys, but their feat was more complex than that. These students were using computer programming skills to construct robots that would solve a series of challenges.
This was the scene throughout the cafeteria, as 57 students participated in “Quantico Middle/High School Summer Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Academy 2014.” The week long program, from June 16-20, was designed for students in grades 5-8 to experience hands-on activities, similar to what Naval scientist and engineers experience every day.
Marine Corps Systems Command, on base, and the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., worked together to develop the activities for students. Fifteen staff members, from teachers, aides and guidance counselors, paired with 15 engineers from MCSC to serve as guides on student teams. In addition, The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., provided several professors and the National Defense Education Program funded supplies for the program.
During the week, students spent most of their time working on “Robotic Lego Green City Challenges,” which involved building and using a general purpose programming language to create a robot that solves simple problems like traveling in a specific direction and hitting a designated target. Students, using spaghetti noodles and marshmallows, also learned what shapes build the tallest and sturdiest tower. They extracted DNA from strawberries, experimented with bread densities and explored a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, and a robot used to detect improvised explosive devices.
With the summer program in its fourth year, Dr. Richard Tom, math department chair and school improvement coordinator, said they’re continually working to push the envelope with STEM.
“Last year we worked on basic robotics, but this year we’re focusing on advanced robotics because we realized the students were at different levels — some of them took robotics courses throughout the year so they were coming into the program at a higher level,” Tom said. “Some of our goals with this program is to foster critical thinking, creative problem-solving and competition, which teaches students that they need to thrive [under pressure and] when competing against each other.”
During the event, engineers and scientists also took time to discuss their current job role and the steps taken to get there.
“We wanted students to start thinking about the types of careers where these skills will be important,” Tom said. “We’re teaching kids how to problem solve using critical-thinking that goes beyond memorization and activities.”
There is a nationwide push to improve STEM education, according to the U.S. Department of Education, that reports only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career. The Department of Defense Educational Activity also has an ongoing STEM initiative.
Michael Ferraro, engineering competency manager at MCSC, said it’s an initiative that’s also important to the military forces. MCSC has supported the STEM academy at Quantico for the last three years — an investment Ferraro greatly values.
“We are part of a larger Navy effort to increase the pool of scientists and engineers that the Navy and any other organizations can draw from,” Ferraro said. “Our goal is to reach out to the kids at this level and get them interested in stem careers and interfacing them with people who are in those careers.”