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Build a Better Robot? Navy Shares Excitement of Learning with Kids

America is the world’s technology leader, however, in recent years, the supply of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education has not kept up with increasing demand. This trend threatens America’s future economic security and our ability to provide naval forces with the breakthrough technologies that give Sailors their edge.

Navy’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, programs were started in order to encourage kids of all ages that these sort of endeavors weren’t only interesting, but they could also be fun. The program links Navy professionals in various fields to schoolchildren, through competitions, summer camps and other events.

Seventy teams comprised of high school and middle school students from around the country compete in a STEM event by building underwater remotely operated vehicles. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)

Dena Kota, Ph.D; Toxicologist, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division Asymmetric Systems Department:

When I started working with the National Defense Education Program’s (NDEP) Virginia Demonstration Project (VDP) in 2008, some of my goals were to show that science and engineering can be fun, that it applies to many aspects of our everyday lives, and that it was not just a career field for men. I was able to engage students in middle school classrooms and show them that what they were learning from their textbooks did have a real purpose and would be useful to them later on. By using robotics and other non-traditional teaching methods, students who didn’t think they were good at science and math realized that they could complete tasks in engineering that they didn’t think were possible. It turned a disengaged student into a student who wanted to learn more…

As a toxicologist, I was able to introduce a new activity in 2010 where students learn about bacteria and viruses and simulate the spread of an infection to learn about epidemics and defending against biological and chemical warfare. We make it a goal to tie each activity to actual Navy project areas so the students can see the applications of what they are doing.

It is compelling to see the enthusiasm that is generated when students step onto base and spend time with actual scientists and engineers.  Students see that there is diversity in our workplace. That engineers are men and women, young and experienced, and most of all, that they, too can become an engineer. They learn that we can have fun in our work, but that it is also very important work with very important purposes. Students begin to see that spending a week on base participating in STEM activities is not just a fun experience but that it is a door to the many opportunities they can take advantage of in order be successful scientists in the future.


Matthew J. Hornbaker; CBR Defense Division Operations,  Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division Asymmetric Systems Department:

Increased focus at the national level for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is good news for the Navy and the nation. I believe that emphasizing an education heavy in science and technology, coupled with programs designed to spark student interest in science, will certainly help steer kids towards careers they might not otherwise have considered…I saw firsthand how the National Defense Education Program’s (NDEP) Virginia Demonstration Project (VDP), sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is helping to ensure the next generation of Navy scientists and engineers are prepared for the challenges they will face in maintaining our nation’s technical advantage.

NDEPs VDP STEM Summer Academy uses Lego robots and balsa wood tower building as a platform to teach the kids basic concepts of math, engineering, and computer science. The program helps give these future S&Es an appreciation for the underlying science behind the technology they often take for granted…

This year’s Summer Academy was my third opportunity to work with middle school aged kids for an entire week as they took on, and successfully completed, challenge after challenge. Beyond the STEM knowledge they gain from these challenges, these kids get some real life experience, since they must rapidly learn to work as a team – with people they have never met – in order to complete these challenges. I came away from the experience confident that that in a few years these future STEM professionals will be ready and capable when they hit the workforce.


Kathleen (Katy) Owens; Mathematician, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division Strategic and Weapon Control Systems Department:

It’s been a whirlwind…introducing a group of seven middle school students to the wonderful world of math, science, and engineering!  Together with the help of two mentors, these students have constructed a tower out of balsa wood, built a water rocket, and programmed robots to solve different missions ranging from rescuing a swimmer to finding hidden “mines.” It has been extremely rewarding to help them work as a team solving problems similar to what could be encountered in the real world. The growth that all of the students have shown in their ability to work as a team and in their excitement for the sciences has been amazing.

It has been exciting working with the students to program the robots. This has been an opportunity to show them that what they are doing with their robot missions relates to real life because mathematicians like me complete similar tasks in our jobs.  My greatest personal moments of this week were when the students would have “aha” moments with the programming. When they were able to understand the relationship between the complex mission they had to accomplish and the actual programming needed to achieve the goal, it made me feel so happy for them.

It made me even happier to see their faces light up when they successfully completed a mission and were given their team badge to place on the mission completion board.  I’ll always remember how good it felt to share my passion for using logic to solve problems with a computer program with these students and to see them respond positively to it.

For more information about STEM, check out: http://www.stemedcoalition.org/.

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