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Army Corps Trains Middle School Students in STEM

Elementary student working out an equation at the chalk board
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is sending volunteers from among its ranks to teach science, technology, engineering, and math—as related to resilient structures—to students in grades six through eight enrolled at Department of Defense Education Activity Schools. © Randy Faris/Corbis/AP Images

A new program will feature U.S. Army Corps of Engineers volunteers going into middle schools for family members of the Department of Defense to present a concentrated STEM curriculum that will culminate in a building project competition.

November 5, 2013—The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is teaming with the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), a system of schools for the dependents of service members, to roll out a new curriculum in DoDEA middle schools aimed at encouraging children to pursue an education and a career in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The collaboration began in 2012 with brainstorming about ways to reverse troubling trends seen in STEM fields, and the in-school initiative begins in January.

“We know what the stats look like,” says Sue Engelhardt, the director of human resources for the Corps. “Kids aren’t going into STEM. They are diverting out of STEM disciplines once they get into college. And once they graduate they might decide to divert.

“We are an engineering organization, so it is very important to us. We have mission-critical occupations in the STEM field,” Engelhardt says. “We are very interested in making sure that we have the right STEM candidates available, now and in the future.

“We are also very interested in making sure that we look at the diversity of our talent,” Engelhardt adds. “We know that we don’t’ have enough women who go into STEM. We don’t have enough people of color who go into STEM. How do we make sure that we focus on making sure we bring diversity into STEM occupations?”

The partnership between the Corps and DoDEA was a natural fit based on compatible goals, Engelhardt says. “They want to make sure that the children they educate are increasing their STEM awareness and exposure so they can go into the STEM occupations. And we want to make sure that we have a pool of candidates to go into the STEM occupations.”

The Corps and the DoDEA formed a committee to develop a flexible, engaging curriculum for the schools that will spark student interest in STEM careers by highlighting the work of the Corps. That committee developed a pilot course focused on building structures that are strong enough to withstand the forces of nature.

The new program will feature Corps volunteers going into DoDEA middle schools regularly as part of a four- to six-week curriculum, working with teachers to share engineering expertise with students regarding projects developed around the pilot course focus.

The exact course will be charted collaboratively by each teacher and the volunteers, but could include science lessons on extreme weather, math lessons on calculating surface areas, or applying such concepts in the engineering of a structure, for example.

“How do the students apply their knowledge to calculate wind forces related to the weather they are studying? How does that impact the design of a building? How would it withstand the severe weather event? How could students test it?” Engelhardt says.

The pilot year of the program was pushed back from its original October start date by the federal government shut down and furlough of employees.

Seven locations have been selected by virtue of their proximity to potential Corps volunteers: West Point, New York; Quantico, Virginia; Fort Knox, Kentucky; Fort Benning, Georgia; Seoul, South Korea; Camp Zama, Japan; and Wiesbaden, Germany.

Students will design and build physical models of structures as part of the curriculum and those projects will be judged in a competition during National Engineers Week in February.

“It’s going to be up to the teacher and volunteer to structure that competition among the students,” Engelhardt says. “They are building something and are actually competing to be the best.”

After the pilot project is over, the Corps will gather evaluations from the participants and make any adjustments needed to the course structure before a second round of the program begins in fall 2014. At this time, the project will expand to approximately 20 DoDEA middle schools. And there are early indications the program could expand further.

“One of our districts said that they have a school that is already interested in taking the curriculum and working with it,” Engelhardt says. “It’s not a DoDEA school. It’s a public middle school that wants to use it and is asking for volunteers to help with it. So we are really hoping that it expands beyond DoDEA.

“Everyplace we live, there is a school. That’s our goal: to see it blossom and grow,” she says. “We feel that making the investment now—over sixth and eighth grades—to encourage [students] and expose them to STEM, will pay huge dividends for the future.”



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