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NUWC Newport employees recall how STEM programs led to engineering careers

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs | June 4, 2018

NEWPORT, R.I. — Andrew DeSousa, an engineer in Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport’s Undersea Warfare Combat Systems Department, recently looked at a photo in the March 2008 issue of NUWC’s newsletter and cringed before giving in to a wide smile.

“Yup, that’s me,” DeSousa said. He then paused before adding, “with all that hair.”

“You did have a lot hair back then,” Tom Dolan, his former mentor, chimed in. “I had a lot more too.”

The photo shows Dolan helping DeSousa – then a sophomore at Portsmouth High School – assemble the drive train chassis on a robot and accompanied an article on NUWC Newport employees working with high school students in the Aquidneck Island Robotics (AIR) program to prepare them for a FIRST Robotics Competition. The image provided a brief foray into the past for the two NUWC Newport employees.

“That was the overdrive competition with the arm that held the big ball,” Dolan said. “We got the robot done in like three or four weeks.”

DeSousa recalled there being an issue with the ball being too heavy for the arm to hold and how they solved the problem.

“My recommendation was, ‘why don’t we just put a stop there?’ Everyone was like, ‘oh yeah, that’s a pretty good idea,’” DeSousa said. “People were talking about putting in bigger springs or pneumatics so that the jaw was strong enough. I was like, just put a piece of metal in the way so the jaw doesn’t open up anymore.”

DeSousa began with the program at the urging of his older brother Michael, who now works in NUWC’s Undersea Warfare Weapons, Vehicles, and Defensive Systems Department, and also was in the robotics program when he was in high school.

“He knew I was interested in taking things apart and putting them back together as a kid, and he thought it would be a good idea to join the robotics team,” DeSousa said. “I joined my sophomore year and stayed with it until I graduated.”

DeSousa went on to attend the University of Rhode Island, where he graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in nuclear engineering. During his time at URI he also interned at NUWC during the summer through the Naval Research Enterprise Intern Program (NREIP).

“When I graduated with my degree I came to a job fair here where I met my future branch head, Mike Kalisz [an engineer in the Undersea Warfare Combat Systems Department],” DeSousa said. “I submitted my résumé and everything else is history.”

For Dolan, a story like DeSousa’s is hardly unfamiliar. A 2006 URI graduate, Dolan is in his 17th year with the robotics program – which has had a few different names over the years. Dolan joined the robotics team as a senior at Middletown High School in 2002.

“Rick Blight, who is the current team leader, he’s been doing this for 18 years, him and another guy, Joe Menassa, they convinced me to come to a meeting, and I decided I liked engineering more than business,” Dolan said. “I went to URI for four years, continued mentoring that team and then I came to work at NUWC a few months after I graduated college in 2006. I’ve been here for the last almost 12 years.”

In his 17 years with the program Dolan was not exactly sure how many have taken the same path as Andrew’s, but two current mentors came to mind. Kim Lesieur and Tim Sieben, both engineers in the Undersea Warfare Combat Systems Department, are former students who were in the program in 2010. Of the seven current team mentors, four are alumni of the team.

“Now they’ve graduated and they work here, and now they’re mentors for the team,” Dolan said. “It’s come full circle.”

Lesieur and Sieben each got into the program for different reasons, but both are happy that they did. Lesieur was a senior at The Prout School in South Kingstown in 2011 when her mother “dragged her into it.” Looking back on it now, Lesieur could not have been happier that she got involved.

“I think that’s really why I went to engineering,” said Lesieur, who earned a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from URI in 2015.

Sieben was a junior at Portsmouth when he began with the robotics program after attending an open house at the urging of his computer science teacher.

“After I went to the open house I really wanted to do this program. It definitely changed my career and what my future would be,” said Sieben, who graduated from URI in 2015 with a degree in computer engineering. “Before I wasn’t thinking about engineering or anything like that. I wanted to follow my dad’s path, he’s a firefighter.”

DeSousa, Lesieur and Sieben are not the first to parlay experience in the robotics program to jobs at NUWC Newport, and they certainly will not be the last.

Candida Desjardins, who leads the Educational Outreach Program and is the regional coordinator for Department of Defense (DoD) STEM, has seen firsthand how these skills learned in the robotics program translate to the workforce.

“The skills that they get from doing these programs are the skills that we want our workforce to have – working together, interdisciplinary, cognizant of timelines, cognizant of costs, able to think on the fly,” Desjardins said. “These are all things that make a really good employee and those are the skills that the kids learn in this.”

The FIRST Robotics Competition has been around since 1992. It is a DoD STEM-supported program in which teams of 25-plus students have just six weeks to build and program robots to perform challenging tasks against a field of competitors.

NUWC Newport has an educational partnership agreement with AIR, allowing the team access to the Undersea Collaboration and Technology Outreach Center (UCTOC) workshop, NUWC machine shop and employee volunteers.

For the 2017-18 season, AIR – an umbrella 501c3 nonprofit organization that manages multiple K-12 competitive robotics teams and outreach events – had 97 students from 33 schools enrolled in nine robotics teams guided by 28 adult mentors. The largest team is FRC Team 78, which had 40 students in grades eight through 12 from 15 schools.

NUWC Newport also has educational partnership agreements with five schools, New Bedford High School, Dartmouth High School, Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School, Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School and Newport Public Schools.

“These programs work. What’s nice is it gives the kids a chance to work with an engineer,” Desjardins said. “Finding the balance between the kids working with an engineer or the engineer doing the project or the kids just doing the project, it’s hard to find that balance. This program has done a really good job with that.”

For more information, on the Aquidneck Island Robotics team, visit www.air4h.org.

NUWC Division Newport, part of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. NUWC Division Newport’s mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures. NUWC’s other division is located in Keyport, Wash.