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Students Compete in Navy-Focused Grand Robotics Mission and see their Future in STEM

By NSWC Dahlgren Division Corporate Communications | July 9, 2014

KING GEORGE, Va. -- Middle school students who completed a Grand Robotics Mission Challenge at the Virginia Demonstration Project (VDP) Summer Academy are now looking forward to a future filled with more "STEM" challenges on a grand scale.

In all, 93 students applied their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills to solve problems of Navy interest at the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) sponsored event from June 23-27.

"It is exciting for me to experience students approaching you to share their eye-opening STEM understanding and their career discoveries with a smile on their face," said Jane Bachman, VDP STEM Dahlgren Academy Director. "This year, the student teams exhibited tenacity as they tried really hard to complete all ten of the Navy focused robotic missions."

Bachman - a Navy human performance in simulation lead engineer - joined her Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) colleagues to work with 16 teachers from five Virginia middle school systems to challenge students throughout the week with scenarios mimicking real engineering problems.

"All week, we worked on 10 different robotics missions," said Linda Lapp, a Spotsylvania Freedom Middle School physical science teacher who worked with an NSWCDD mentor in guiding her team of six students. "The missions covered real life Navy experiences - things like mine sweeping, delivering the railgun to the ship, rescuing a swimmer, and rescuing a ship. We're doing all these different types of robotics missions using our robots."

In the Grand Robotics Challenge, the student teams worked to demonstrate one non-stop mission of seven robotic Navy focused challenges. This activity emphasizes modular programming and component reuse skills.

"The teams program their robots one time to see how many missions they could successfully complete during a little 15-minute window - and the team had two tries to accomplish the grand mission," explained Lapp. "It applies to real world because you want to utilize the manpower and the ship power for more than one mission."

Navy officials anticipate the students may one day use their STEM skills at Navy warfare center laboratories to design future technologies supporting U.S. warfighters and America's homeland defense and security personnel engaged in real-world missions.

"The summer STEM academy is a one-of-a-kind experience," said Jesse Blackburn, a Stafford County Dixon-Smith Middle School physical science teacher. "Students are afforded the unique opportunity to engage with scientists and engineers in a way that very few their age have been able to do. The academy allows students to create and problem-solve using the principles found in many STEM related careers. This is a program that builds excitement and will continue to push students toward STEM related degrees and careers."

The NDEP VDP goal is to increase the attraction of the Navy's warfare centers and shipyards as an eventual place of employment for students participating in the program.

The program teams up teachers like Lapp and Blackburn with practicing scientists and engineers from the mentor-rich environment at the Naval Warfare Centers. During the school year, science and math themes featuring robotics problems are integrated throughout the curriculum.

"At the end of the summer academy, over half of the students raised their hands in response to a question regarding their interest in pursuing STEM careers - Wow!" said Jajuana Avery. "Sharing my story allowed me to give the students an opportunity to dream and set goals like I did once I was introduced to a science career."

The students engaged 16 NSWCDD scientist and engineer mentors in career awareness discussions. The mentors included scientists and engineers who have mentored students in STEM for several years as well as first-time mentors such as Avery and Joey Wilson, from the NSWCDD Electromagnetic and Sensor Systems Department.

"I was pleasantly surprised at both the positive attitudes and capabilities of the students in the team I mentored," said Wilson, a Navy computer scientist. "I believe they are destined for very bright futures. At the end of STEM camp, one of the students thanked me for being a good mentor. That's when it hit me that I connected with the students and maybe touched them in a way that will influence the rest of their life in a positive way. It is a very good feeling to know I may have made a difference."

The summer academy was a week full of experiments and hands on science activities, said Diamond Chick, a Stafford County student, adding that she enjoyed the opportunity to experience a variety of science and engineering areas from life science to civil engineering in addition to meeting other students from different schools and counties.

"I like the tower test the best," she said. "It was a chance to work with drafting and present all the stuff you would as an engineer in a real life situation, like a design brief."

NDEP VDP originated under the Office of Naval Research N-STAR (Naval Research - Science and Technology for America's Readiness), a science and technology workforce development program launched in 2004. It was initiated to show a diversity of pre-teens and teens that math, science and engineering are fascinating, fun and rewarding.

Moreover, the Dahlgren VDP STEM Academy runs a parallel junior mentor program where eight high school students, an NSWCDD scientist or engineer mentor, and a middle school teacher who encourage and engage students in advanced robotic missions, leadership roles, and presentation skills.

Since its inception, VDP's ultimate goal has been to establish educational outreach programs at other Navy research and development centers throughout the country.

The initiative could eventually expand beyond the Navy and evolve into a national demonstration project encompassing all Department of Defense laboratories in a sustained effort to secure the long-term competitiveness of America's science and technology workforce by hooking more kids on math and science at an earlier age. As a result, the number of students earning university degrees in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology is expected to exponentially increase.