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NEWS | July 13, 2018

Middle School Students Brief Congressman on STEM Technologies to Solve Simulated Navy Challenges

By NSWC Dahlgren Division Corporate Communications

KING GEORGE, Va. – It’s not often that middle school students have an opportunity to brief the Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces about technologies they developed to solve Navy challenges.


Students from schools located in several Virginia counties can tell their teachers and classmates they did just that, when asked the inevitable question, “what did you do over the summer break?”


Their technological efforts took place during the 2018 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Summer Academy sponsored by Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD).


Along the way, the students briefed their mentors, teachers, and visitors – including Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) – on how they overcame a variety of Navy focused problems by designing, building, and programming LEGO Mindstorm robots.


The problems could not be solved, however, with STEM skills alone. The successful completion of 10 simulated missions required continuous communication, coordination, teamwork, and lots of creativity.


As Wittman, school teachers, and NSWCDD scientist and engineer mentors observed, the students used STEM to rescue swimmers, rotate troops, recover ships, create a warning signal structure, recover an infrared beacon at sea, map an underwater surface, move an amphibious vehicle to a dry dock, deliver crates of humanitarian aid; build a minesweeper to locate and mark mines so that ships can avoid them, and transport an electromagnetic railgun to the deck of a Navy ship.   


The STEM camp didn’t end there. The Robotics and Automation Engineering activity with its 10 missions was just one of 10 activities that students were immersed in from June 25-29.


As Wittman toured the summer academy – also known as STEM summer camp – he saw ‘campers’ fire water rockets they constructed and calibrated in conjunction with an aerospace engineering activity. The goal for all teams was to discover the optimal amount of fuel (water in this case) required to launch the ball the highest.


As students engaged in a civil engineering activity that involved building a balsa wood tower to meet the goal of the highest strength to weight ratio, Wittman encouraged the students to continue pursuing STEM education and career paths. The congressman told students that even if they decide on other careers, they will still benefit from their STEM education since there are STEM related issues in other fields. He added that by the time the students reach the workforce, 80-85 percent of jobs will involve STEM.


“The STEM camp has a variety of activities that engage students in different ways,” said Page Wessel, a former school teacher, currently an NSWCDD mathematician supporting the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile Program. “Some students prefer robotics, others prefer more hands on like the boat activity. We have enough activities to get the kids interested in STEM careers and they have lots of questions for us as teachers and mentors. They’re really enjoying the activities designed to enforce their STEM instruction.”


In all, 103 students – from middle schools located in Virginia’s Stafford, Spotsylvania, and King George Counties in addition to Fredericksburg and Dahlgren – partnered with one of 17 middle school teachers and one of 17 NSWCDD scientist and engineer mentors. The teachers and mentors encouraged students to develop their teamwork and problem-solving skills in math and science throughout the camp.


“This summer program is a great extension and opportunity for those kids who may have some STEM interest but can’t stay after school to take advantage of STEM programs because they are not able to get rides or can’t take an elective class,” said Lisa Jones, a Freedom Middle School gifted resource teacher who teaches STEM elective classes. “It’s also the perfect opportunity for those kids in schools that don’t have STEM elective classes.”


In addition to their STEM activities, students were briefed each morning by NSWCDD leaders, scientists and engineers. NSWCDD Commanding Officer Capt. Godfrey ‘Gus’ Weekes discussed his STEM background and experience in the Navy. Kevin Cogley spoke to the students about the chemical, biological, and radiological (CBR) Defense work at Dahlgren. He also demonstrated equipment used for CBR Defense, including a gas mark and gas detector. Dr. Patrick Mead discussed how virtual reality and augmented reality helps the warfighter and reduces costs of programs. What’s more, several students experienced augmented reality while wearing a headset and virtually touring a room inside of a ship.


NSWCDD High Energy Laser Controls and Integration Branch Head Matt Ketner – speaking about the Navy’s future challenges from threat and operational perspectives – called upon the students to help the Navy in the future. His overview included the technical skills required for work in directed energy technology as well as the various missions and applications for directed energy systems.


Sarah Wessel – a college senior interning at Dahlgren through the STEM Student Employment Program (SSEP) – recounted how she was inspired to pursue STEM while engaged in the summer academy.


“I worked with a small team of students to design, build, program, and race a PVC Pipe boat,” said Wessel. “We programmed the boat to complete the course at the Dahlgren boat ramp, then competed against the other teams' boats at the end of the week. What is most memorable about the experience was how the NSWC Dahlgren engineers challenged us, believed in our potential, and encouraged us to overcome challenges.”


In 2017, Wessel –  via the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program (NREIP) at Dahlgren – converted the Advanced Beam Control Locating and Engaging - Enhanced Tracking System (ABLE-ETS) gimbal's pointing controller Simulink code into C++ code. ABLE-ETS is a test bed for maturing directed energy and high-energy laser technologies, including tracking, sensors, and lasers.


NREIP provides an opportunity for college students to participate in research at a Navy laboratory during the summer. The goals of NREIP are to encourage participating college students to pursue science and engineering careers, to further education through mentoring and their participation in research, and to make them aware of Navy research and technology efforts, which can lead to employment within the Department of the Navy.


This year, Wessel picked up an internship with the STEM Student Employment Program, applying her experience from the previous summer to convert the control system of ODIN - a laser dazzler.


SSEP provides direct hire authority for undergraduate and graduate degree seeking students enrolled in STEM majors. The program was established to provide interns with exposure to public service, enhance educational experience, and possibly provide financial aid to support educational goals. Additionally, this program will provide a streamlined and accelerated hiring process to compete successfully with private industry for high-quality scientific, technical, engineering, or mathematics students for filling scientific and engineering positions.


In conjunction with their academy activities – and the inspirational morning briefings – the STEM campers saw the real-world applications during their NSWCDD tour, that featured technologies and facilities, including the electromagnetic railgun, laser lethality laboratory, the Potomac River Test Range, vehicle integration technologies, and the F-14 ground plane used for testing and evaluating hazards of electromagnetic radiation to ordnance.


"It is amazing how the campers engineered their way through these various tasks,” said STEM Summer Academy director Robert Taft. “They responded to Capt. Weekes charge to grab this opportunity.  They worked hard, failed quickly and productively but in the end, the students saw many successes. The NSWCDD tours and science demonstrations tied it all together in a vision of what is possible when STEM teams work together."


Information on Navy internship programs for students is available at: