KING GEORGE, Va. - (NNS) – Teams of middle school students deployed robots they
built and programmed to complete fictitious Navy missions at the Virginia
Demonstration Project (VDP) Summer Academy from June 22-26.
The students – and their parents, teachers, and mentors –
believe that the same science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills
applied to the complex scenarios will give them control over their careers,
income, and potential to make a positive impact for the United States and the
Department of Defense.
What’s more, the sixth, seventh and eighth graders enjoyed
controlling the same real-world robot used by U.S. warfighters to clear mines
and ordnance in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In all, 96 students took turns operating the Army Talon
Ordnance Disposal Robot, mastering their skills on a robot designed to defeat
counter-improvised explosive devices, or CIEDs.
“It’s realistic and opens a bigger perspective on how real
robots works,” said Meesam, a Stafford Middle School rising eight grader, who
used the robot to inspect, collect, and dispose of make believe ordnance.
The robot’s cameras transmitted four video feeds back to
students as they operated the same remote controls used for the Xbox and
Playstation video game consoles. Army engineers have also used the Wii game
controller and iPod Touch.
“Students are working on LegoMindstorm robots as part of the
camp challenges,” said Greg Marsh, assistant VDP science, technology,
engineering and math (STEM) coordinator for the College of William and Mary STEM
Education Alliance. “The Talon robot is a real world example of military
equipment that students use throughout camp.”
The students, however, spent most of the week applying their
STEM skills to solve problems of Navy interest at the National Defense Education
Program (NDEP) sponsored event.
Their mentors – 17 Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren
Division (NSWCDD) scientists and engineers – teamed up with 17 middle school
teachers to challenge students throughout the week with scenarios mimicking real
“To me, the most wonderful thing was to see the excitement
build in some of the students. Most were eager and ready to go, but a few were
hesitant to jump in,” said academy coordinator and NSWCDD engineer Scott
Gingrich. “One student in particular had not had much experience with computers
or robots, but after running the big mine-retrieval robot through its paces, she
was positively eager to try her hand at the Lego robotics missions.”
Parents were invited to watch their children deploy robots on
ten missions encompassing real life Navy experiences such as mine sweeping,
delivering weapons to warships, rescuing swimmers, and rescuing ships.
The VDP STEM Academy runs a parallel junior mentor program
where nine high school students, an NSWCDD scientist or engineer mentor, and a
middle school teacher engage students in advanced robotic missions, leadership
roles, and presentation skills.
The junior mentors helped set up the robotics challenge and
shared their knowledge with academy students. They also assisted with judging
whether student teams successfully completed their missions.
“I want to be an engineer and thought it (junior mentoring)
would be a good way to learn more about STEM,” said Ashley, one of the junior
mentors, speaking to parents gathered in an auditorium for briefings that
included advice on exploring potential STEM careers paths for their children.
The students represented the Dahlgren School at Naval Support
Facility South Potomac, Fredericksburg public schools, and King George,
Spotsylvania, and Stafford counties in Virginia.
“NSWCDD's STEM outreach efforts have been evaluated by the STEM
Education Alliance at the College of William and Mary throughout the ten year
program,” said Gail Hardinge, executive director for the College of Williams and
Mary STEM Education Alliance. “There is a wealth of research demonstrating the
impact of scientist and engineer mentoring – how virtual mentoring compares to
face-to-face mentoring and, most importantly, how sustainable the program's
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.
Since its inception, VDP's ultimate goal has been to establish
educational outreach programs at Navy research and development centers
throughout the country.
“While return on investment is challenging to determine in
complex social settings, the positive Influence we see four and five years after
a student has participated in the program suggests that the NSWCDD's STEM
outreach efforts demonstrate long-term impacts,” said Hardinge.
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.
“It is wonderful to see the light in the students’ eyes when it
finally ‘clicks’ and they understand something, or when, after many tries, they
succeed in getting their robot to finish a mission,“ Gingrich reflected about
his experience at the VDP summer academy.
Research indicates that STEM programs like VDP are contributing
to the rising number of students earning university degrees in science,
mathematics, engineering, and technology.