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NEWS | Dec. 30, 2020

NSWCPD Celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month with Dr. Michael Colón Virtual Presentation

By Brentan Debysingh, NSWCPD Public Affairs NSWCPD

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Naval Sea Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) welcomed Dr. Michael Colón to share his insights via a virtual presentation on Dec. 1, 2020.

Colón is a Computer Scientist with the Center for High Assurance Computer Systems at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Since 2003, he has served as principal investigator on numerous research projects focusing on topics of relevance to the Navy, including automated analysis of commercial off-the-shelf software for vulnerable code detection and remediation, re-engineering of legacy weapons system software and hardware, malicious code detection and more.

After an introduction by NSWCPD Commanding Officer Capt. Dana Simon, Colón spoke at length about his childhood in New York City to highlight integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) among Hispanics means interceding in their educational journey at an early age.

In the late 1970s, Colón attended P.S. 155, a bilingual immersion school, where the teachers spoke both English and Spanish. As part of a Gifted and Talented program at the school, he had access to a resource room that contained two Apple II computers. His countless hours using the machines and a program called the “Animal Game” sparked his interest in the way computers could learn.

The program would ask the user to think of an animal and would guess the animal through a series of questions about its appearance, diet, habitat, etc. Using a very rudimentary programming language, the program would modify itself by saving feedback from users when it guessed incorrectly, thereby becoming a more capable version of itself.

“For me, the fact that programs could learn from user input was a revolutionary thought. It was my first exposure to machine learning and self-modifying programs,” said Colón. “These experiences set me on a track towards a passion for computer programming and computer science. I was ten years old, and this was a very impactful experience.”

With a distinct interest in computers, Colón’s educational pursuits included the influential Prep to Prep program, which helped prepare him for private high school, and then Collegiate School for Boys. He earned his bachelor of science in engineering degree at Princeton University in 1992. Colón then went on to Stanford University, where he completed his master’s degree in 1994 and doctorate in 2003, both in computer science.

Colón noted that Hispanics are the largest minority in the U.S. but are significantly underrepresented in STEM jobs. His recommendations include personnel and funding for STEM programs targeting students as early as middle school.

“I think we need to capture the youth who are interested in STEM careers in middle school – 6th, 7th, 8th grade,” said Colón. “Children need to be exposed that early. Having a computer in my middle school classroom was very helpful, and it allowed me to learn to program. Bright students are very resourceful and, if given the tools, they will figure out how to build what they want to build and create their vision of the world; they just need to have those tools available to them.”

NSWC Philadelphia Division supports a broad range of outreach programs in order to inspire students to pursue careers in the (STEM) disciplines to develop the future workforce, as well as provide opportunities for engagement to develop the current workforce.

After the official presentation, Colon answered questions from the audience including the non-technical skills needed to advance to the next level professionally and the role of Hispanic mentors.

Christian Lopez, one of the founding members of the Latin American Employee Resource Group (LAERG), mentioned that in 2014, the NSWCPD LAERG adopted Roberto Clemente Middle School in Philadelphia.

“We provide STEM mentorship and support in afterschool robotics and underwater vessel competitions,” said Lopez. “In April 2016, they won the Greater Philadelphia Area SeaPerch Challenge competition out of 38 middle schools. For us it was very rewarding, because the support we provided made a difference. It is great being able to be role models for the kids and try to empower their academic and personal goals.”

Hispanic Heritage Month is observed from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. September 15 is significant because it honors the independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Additionally, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence on Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, respectively.

NSWCPD employs approximately 2,700 civilian engineers, scientists, technicians, and support personnel. The NSWCPD team does the research and development, test and evaluation, acquisition support, and in-service and logistics engineering for the non-nuclear machinery, ship machinery systems, and related equipment and material for Navy surface ships and submarines. NSWCPD is also the lead organization providing cybersecurity for all ship systems.