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NEWS | July 6, 2017

Navy Mentors Get Middle School Students Excited about STEM and Internship Programs

By NSWC Dahlgren Corporate Communications Division

DAHLGREN, Va. – Jennifer Testa is inspiring students to follow her lead – pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and a Department of Defense internship – to secure a fascinating and challenging real-world career.

The Pathways college intern spoke to parents of middle school students engaged in the 2017 Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD)-sponsored Navy STEM Summer Academy held at the King George Middle School, June 26-30.

“It’s fun and the Dahlgren scientists and engineers have a lot of respect for interns,” Testa, told the parents in the auditorium. 

Meanwhile, their children were busy in the gym deploying robots they designed and built – with the assistance of Navy scientist and engineer mentors – to locate mines, deliver supplies to troops, and track infrared beacons.

“Pathways is an automatic conversion,” said Testa, who is working toward bachelor of science degrees in applied mathematics and secondary education at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a great for hands-on experiences where you can see the real world applications, and it eliminates searching for a job after graduation.”

Testa – who mentored students in various STEM challenges – is applying her mathematics knowledge to a “cool project” in sensor fusion technology at the NSWCDD Warfare Systems Engineering and Integration Department this summer. The rising senior looks forward to a challenging job at Dahlgren after graduation.   

This year, the STEM campers caught a glimpse of the real-world applications during their NSWCDD tour, featuring technologies and facilities that included 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.

“This camp is a fantastic way to bridge students’ love for technology to STEM related interests and careers,” said Kerrie Pierce, a KGHS life sciences teacher. “They know that they love using their devices, playing video games, working on computers, but they assume anything STEM related is too difficult. They are a very intuitive generation and we need to tap into that, especially since there are more jobs than ever in these fields."

At the orientation for parents, David Campbell reflected on how high school and college internship programs – including Pathways – paved the way toward his STEM career and current position as an NSWCDD electromagnetic railgun engineer four years ago.

Campbell was among 17 NSWCDD scientist and engineer mentors, 17 middle school teachers, and nine junior mentors (high school students who completed the camp) who encouraged middle school students to develop their teamwork and problem-solving skills in math and science throughout the camp.

“The world is your oyster,” NSWCDD Commanding Officer Capt. Godfrey ‘Gus’ Weekes told the students as he described how STEM made a difference in his career and the wide range of opportunities they will have with a STEM education. “We are doing great things for our country and the Navy while pushing the envelope into the realm of the possible. If you want to be challenged on doing something new – that cool thing that is probably just in journals right now – that is what we do at Dahlgren. We have scientists and engineers who are trying to prove what some have said could not be done – and they do it with passion.”

In all, 96 students – from middle schools located in Virginia’s Stafford, Spotsylvania, and King George Counties in addition to Fredericksburg and Dahlgren – partnered with a teacher and an NSWCDD scientist or engineer. 

As the summer camp concluded, the Navy scientist and engineer volunteer mentors recalled the reasons they take time to make an impact on the students, their lives, and future careers.

“I was truly blessed when I was growing up to have a lot of really great mentors, and it has always been a dream of mine to find a way to give back - to help inspire others by sharing those things that I am passionate about, the way my mentors did with me,” said Cassandra Robison, NSWCDD computer engineer. “It just so happens that what I am passionate about is STEM.  It is a true joy to work with the students each year and help them to tie math and science concepts that may seem boring on paper to real world applications.”

“I look forward each year to participate in the STEM Summer Academy,” said Cesar Smith, NSWCDD systems engineer. “It's an opportunity to give back to the community and get middle school students excited about potential careers in STEM. It gives students a better sense of what a scientist or engineer does on a daily basis, and allows them to ask questions throughout the week.”

“As a mentor I was able to see the excitement in my team of six campers,” said Dr. Aimee Ketner, a mentor from 2008 to 2014. “Now, as academy coordinator (for the past three years), I am able to see the impact this camp has across all the teams and students and how the excitement transfers to the mentors themselves. It is truly amazing to see all the enthusiasm over the different STEM activities."

The excitement was contagious in camp as the middle schoolers built water rockets and determined the optimal fuel load to maximize height. They also explored epidemiology – the study and analysis of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations.

What’s more, the student teams constructed towers from balsa wood and briefed an audience on the tower design. They predicted the number of each color of M&Ms in a large bag after compiling statistics on M&Ms in smaller bags. The campers also maximized the cargo carrying capacity of boats they built out of aluminum foil and straws. 

“It expanded my STEM knowledge and skill,” said AJ Gerardot, a junior mentor and rising James Monroe High School sophomore, pointing out that junior mentors have time during the camp to work on sophisticated technological projects such as making sensors work and building a robot car with blue tooth technology. “I hope a lot of them (middle school students) come back to be a junior mentor next year.”

Information on Navy internship programs for students is available at: