The 317th Recruiting Squadron, based at Joint Base Andrews, Md., recently started a program to inspire innovation and creativity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. They challenged students in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland schools with a simple question: Why are STEM careers important to our nation?
The squadron received an overwhelming response. With the Air Force STEM 2020 Challenge, airmen reached out to hundreds of schools in the region. Upon learning of the program, counselors and teachers in middle and high schools responded by posting the contest on their social-media sites and webpages. It went viral from there.
The 317th RCS received submissions from schools all over the D.C., Virginia, and Maryland area. In April 18 outstanding essay writers were selected and given "golden e-vites" to spend the day learning about innovation at the Department of Defense. They were each allowed to bring a parent with them. "This is the Willy Wonka of STEM programs," stated Master Sgt. Buffy Brown, Air Force STEM 2020 coordinator.
Essay contest winners were invited to Washington, D.C. for a day of innovation and exploration. They received insider tours of the Pentagon from senior strategy members assigned to the Joint Staff and Air Staff. Lt. Col. Steven Whitney, member of the Joint Staff JCS J8 (and a tour guide), said, "It was a pleasure to welcome these future innovators and give them a taste of what it is like to serve here. It was inspiring to spend time with our nation's future leaders." Needless to say, the students did not receive a standard tour.
One of the most solemn moments came while visiting the September 11 Memorial in the Pentagon. Lt. Col. Whitney asked one of the students where they were on Sept. 11, 2001. Young Mariam Cocker, from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Maryland, answered, "I was in kindergarten... but I remember seeing all of it on TV." It was then that one of the fathers on the tour, Mr. Jeffrey Howdyshell, came forward and shared his experiences as a first responder at the Pentagon on 9/11. The entire tour erupted in applause.
Following their visit to the Pentagon, the young innovators got their chance to show their stuff with America's latest technology at the Lockheed Martin Fighter Demonstration Center in Crystal City, Va. They received in-depth briefings on the Air Force's newest fighter aircraft, the F-35. Ms. Heather Penney, an Air National Guard fighter pilot and program director at Lockheed Martin, led the presentation.
Minutes later, senior Lockheed Martin reps, all former military fighter pilots, entered the room and escorted the students to state-of-the-art F-35 and F-22 simulator facilities. Looping and turning with the young prodigies, the former pilots shared intimate details of future fighter technology. They also shared their own flying experiences, ranging from combat encounters in Vietnam all way through both Gulf Wars. Students shared their input, as well, and talked about everything from advanced robotics to how tomorrow's avionics "ought to work."
"I saw a few future Top Guns in there," said Ms. Penney, who has recently followed in her father's footsteps and joined the world of sport aircraft racing in Nevada.
One of the most interesting exchanges occurred between Ms. Penny and one of youngest students in the group, 13-year-old Rebecca Sobus. Ms. Penney said, "She is an outstanding young innovator and clearly a future leader. The rigor of her thought processes and her intellectual curiosity are exactly what our nation needs as we move into the future. Having a chance to meet and interact with these talented young people makes me tremendously humble and proud!"
At the end of the day, the STEM 2020 essay winners left Air Force and industry leaders with a comforting sense of America's future. Before we parted, I offered a final thought:
We often label our young folks these days as the 'I, me' generation. However, I don't see it that way. These future leaders have an incredible sense of the future, particularly when it comes to the impact of 9/11 on their lives. They really are our country's next greatest generation -- innovators with visions well beyond the capabilities of our current generation. They are the key to innovation in America. I can't wait until Air Force STEM 2021 to see what the future holds.
More information on the Air Force STEM 2020 Challenge can be found here.