Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dahlgren Summer Camp focuses on STEM, students

U.S. Navy photo by Doug Davant
Students and mentors discuss strength of materials in summer camp exercise.
Learning without thought is labor lost.
~ Confucius

Confucius would have been right at home had he been able to visit the Virginia Demonstration Program summer camp held recently at Naval Support Facility Dahlgren.

There, 104 students from the King George, Stafford and Spotsylvania Counties' school districts – and one from North Carolina's Dare County – engaged in deep thoughts about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), made fun by Navy engineers.

The Virginia Demonstration Program is part of a partnership between the Navy, the College of William and Mary, and the National Science Foundation to get school children interested in science and technology.

Called ‘‘N-Star,” the initiative was first launched five years ago by the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Surface Warfare Center leadership as a vision to provide a Department of Navy civilian workforce that focuses on rapid transition of science and technology into the naval forces of today and the future. And the future is where today’s school students come in, as the objective is to introduce middle school pupils to the essence of science, mathematics and engineering by providing hands-on problem-based applications.

‘‘It was lots of fun to solve these problems in a group,” said 13-year-old Brian Will of Stafford. ‘‘We came up with the solution together.”

The Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division’s Robert L. ‘‘Bob” Stiegler, of the Asymmetric Defense Systems (Z-OED) Dept., is the VDP director and has been with the N-Star program since 2004 and explained that the camp ‘‘is full inclusion. It isn’t for just the gifted and talented student,” he emphasized. ‘‘All students get to participate.”

The NSWCDD engineer also said that the camp follows most of the Virginia Standards of Learning guidelines in helping children to understand and learn about STEM subjects.

‘‘We are geared toward SOLs in science, math, physics, biological sciences plus there are social science goals here too,” he said.

Projects at the camp included a robotic exercise in which youngsters actually built robots out of plastic LEGO toy pieces and equipped them with sensors to clear mines, recover a toy ship and transit around mines—challenges that NSWCDD engineers might be faced with.

The students also built bridges in studying the strength of materials.

‘‘They are exploring how to make and use composites,” said Bob Taft, an engineer with NSWCDD’s Strategic and Weapons Control (K) Dept. ‘‘They will put together foam, paper, balsa wood and other light materials to build something strong that can hold weight and learn engineering principles.”

There were 17 engineer volunteers from NSWCDD who teamed with science and mathematic teachers to lead the camp.

Bill Evans, an eighth-grade science teacher from North Carolina’s Dare County, said his school has been interested in pursuing opportunities for the camp at Dahlgren since hearing about it last year.

‘‘We learned about this through the College of William and Mary,” he said. ‘‘These students really get a lot out of this and it is fun for them as well.”

Much of that fun was written on the faces of the children as they launched hand-built rockets from the Dahlgren parade field. Some of the rockets traveled as high as 200 feet, powered only by water and air pressure.

The rockets were made with plastic bottles, cardboard tubes, construction paper, tape and ping-pong balls and it was evident that a lot of thought went into the learning experience.

Confucius would have been proud.