Addressing the ever-changing landscape of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) arena is a task that requires dedicated efforts from its professionals.
For the second consecutive year, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, is partaking in the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship (AEF) Program, a Department of Energy initiative that gives K-12 STEM teachers the opportunity to work with various government agencies for one year.
Leadership at Carderock said that the key to the future of the field lies in the education of the next generation of STEM professionals. The command is hosting three teachers for this year’s cohort: Laura Larkin of San Carlos, California; Michael Vargas of Phoenix, Arizona; and Suzy Otto of Paris, Missouri. Otto is detailed specifically at Carderock, while Larkin is assigned to the Department of Defense STEM Office, and Vargas with the DOD Manufacturing Technology Office Program. This unique experience gives the teachers a chance to create a larger-scaled impact in the field.
“A lot of these teachers that have been chosen for the fellowship have stellar leadership skills behind them,” said Charlotte George, Carderock’s STEM and Outreach Program Director (Code 00T). “This gets them to put all of their energy outside of the classroom towards what some might say is the bigger picture of education.”
When the command hosts events such as a robotics competition or the Carderock Math Contest, it naturally draws many local participants. However, as George pointed out, these activities are not beneficial for the students if they do not align with what they are learning in class. While STEM professionals can get passionate about their work, she said that the missing perspective from not formally trained educators can sometimes impact how productive outreach endeavors are. Teachers want their students to be interested in the field, and organizations such as Carderock want to continually bring in fresh faces, making it a must that both sides understand one another’s needs. Spending the year in the AEF allows the selected teachers to address those needs at the highest levels.
“By learning more about the work done at Carderock, I'll have more first-hand, real-world knowledge to share with my students,” said Otto said. “I hope to translate my experiences in an established STEM office and my interactions with teachers and students in this area to inspire new initiatives in my rural Missouri region once I return home.”
Carderock’s involvement with the program began from a working relationship between Tyson Tuchscherer, an alum of the program, and Toby Ratcliffe, Carderock’s former STEM and Outreach Coordinator. Tuchscherer left his position as a math and science teacher in Oregon for his fellowship obligation in 2005, and opted to stay in the Washington, D.C., area when his time concluded. His post-fellowship journey led to him working on the National Defense Education Program at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he and Ratcliffe initially crossed paths. By 2009, Tuchscherer began to make regular appearances at Carderock and saw the potential that an AEF participant could have with the command.
“I introduced Toby to the Einstein Fellowship, and she was very interested but never had the funding or the opportunity,” Tuchscherer said. “The command had a period without a STEM director for a few years, then Charlotte came on, and I got her interested. This time, the opportunity, funding and interest was there. All the stars aligned to make it happen.”
George said Tuchscherer helped her get the interagency agreements set up so Carderock could physically host fellows and participate in the program.
“As an educator in his first career, he saw the gap that we were struggling with and how we could translate that into making an educational impact in our community,” George said.
The 2019 academic year marked Carderock’s inaugural participation in the Fellowship. Assigned to the command was Debbie Reynolds, the STEM Coordinator for the Baldwin-Whitehall School District in Pennsylvania prior to her fellowship. Reynolds has been an educator for nearly 30 years, and has always emphasized the importance of access and awareness for uncommon STEM opportunities. On her first day as a fellow, she was blown away at the work that was taking place at Carderock, and most notably, who was doing it.
“Even though I had family in the Navy, I wasn’t aware of how many people are civilians that work for the Navy,” said Reynolds, who recently became the Director of Tech Works for the Commonwealth Charter Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Working next to George, Reynolds got familiar with the many roles Carderock serves to the entire Navy while helping the command revamp its STEM outreach protocols. Her main goals were to ensure that the command actively promoted Naval Sea Systems Command’s brand in the STEM arena, and to help the STEM and Outreach office fit their community engagements efforts into a standardized model. Although there were also fellowship-specific duties that Reynolds had in addition to working for the command, those roles seldom conflicted. When her term came to a close, Reynolds left the command with a deeper appreciation for the Navy’s implementation of STEM work.
“I loved all of the projects, all the engineering going on, just everything. It’s awesome,” she said.
Hosting this year’s fellows presents unprecedented challenges as the program, much like the rest of the world, is working to navigate itself around the restrictions of COVID-19. Although the fellowship does not traditionally allow remote working, it was one of the first adjustments the AEF made for 2020. Participants will split time between working for their assigned departments and collaborative assignments with their cohort, almost exclusively in a virtual setting.
“We want to make sure as mentors that they get every opportunity they would’ve had if they were coming into the office every day,” George said. “I think the mentors have been putting a lot of effort into making sure that we still give the fellows an experience they signed up for.”
Given those circumstances, the chance to work outside of the normal classroom environment and explore new avenues of STEM work is something that Tuchscherer said is instrumental to educators keeping their students involved. Conversely, the organizations these teachers work with get a chance to gain a better understanding of the left and right limits of the schools they wish to serve and tailor their outreach efforts within those confines. He and Reynolds agree that teachers everywhere should jump at the chance to become an Einstein fellow.
“Educators need to keep growing as professionals. This fellowship really provides that opportunity for us to step outside of our bubble of our school, or our district, or even statewide, and look at things at a national lens,” Reynolds said. “It puts things in a little bit different perspective. When you take that back to your district, it’s just a much richer experience.”
2020 is expected to be the last year of Carderock hosting an AEF participant, as George predicts that future fellows who would have gone to Carderock will instead be assigned directly to the DOD STEM Office. Out of the organizations that are participating this year, Carderock is the only one that is not located in Washington, D.C. The educators have already proven to be largely beneficial to the command, but George said that they could likely affect even more change from a centrally located organization such as the DOD STEM Office.
For now, she plans to take advantage of the time the command has with this year’s assigned fellows to push future STEM outreach efforts to new heights.
“I think just having two years of participation in this fellowship has totally changed our own perspective and how we can run this program and better impact STEM literacy and opportunity in this area,” George said.