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Defense Department Embraces STEM Education Outreach 

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By Cynthia D. Miller 

The Defense Deaprtment hires more scientists and engineers, and sponsors more research and development projects than any other federal employer. It also faces more challenges for retaining and attracting its work force than private sector employers.  

More than 35,000 scientists and engineers work in the department’s 67 national laboratories on projects that require them to be U.S. citizens and often have high-level security clearances that take months to obtain. More than half of the existing scientists and engineers are over the age of 45 and will likely retire by 2020.

To address this multi-faceted hiring dilemma, 28 senior leaders across the department created a five-year STEM education and outreach strategic plan that sets out to ensure a diverse, world-class STEM work force. Under the leadership of Zachary Lemnios, director of defense research and engineering, the department will seek to collaborate with industry and other government agencies. The plan focuses on four key pillars:  inspire students, parents, teachers and the public to engage in STEM discovery and innovation; develop a future, world-class STEM work force; attract and retain talent by creating a dynamic and innovative work environment within the Defense Department; and, deliver programs that inspire, develop, attract and retain world-class talent.

“Get a student involved in hands-on experiences and good things happen,” said Lemnios.
Laura Adolfie, director of the STEM development office and administrator of the national defense education program, will lead development, implementation and assessment of “hands on” experiences. Congress’ enactment of the science, mathematics, and research for transformation program in 2006, provides funds to support U.S. students’ science and engineering degrees in exchange for working at a Defense Department lab year for one year. It was so successful that it was expanded into the current education program, whose goals include awarding 1,000 innovative scholarships by 2013, demonstrating department involvement in K-12 education initiatives in 17 states by the end of 2010, and awarding 50, five-year research fellowships by 2013.  

The national education plan is also intent on inspiring and building 21st century skills of K-12 students and their teachers in areas of science, engineering and mathematics by placing defense scientists and engineers in classrooms. They partner with local teachers to demonstrate real-world applications, and offer virtual programs through a student-focused website, www.ndep.us. The website gives information about various scholarship and fellowship programs, stories from students and professionals, current descriptions about department laboratory projects, and a LabTV network that produces videos showcasing defense lab engineers and scientists. Also offered are ways for scientists, engineers, students, teachers and the community to become involved in STEM education.

Some examples of the post-secondary components are: developing capstone undergraduate and graduate courses around authentic problems in critical areas with emphasis on deepening graduate-level systems engineering and cyber-security courses; providing opportunities for students to participate in design challenges; and mentoring.

“The best way for someone to advance STEM education is to mentor a student, and help them experience their own, personal point of magic,” said Lemnios.

Cynthia D. Miller is president of Miller.Omni.Media, Inc., a woman-owned small business
specializing in strategic communications, marketing and media production. She can be reached at cmiller@milleromnimedia.com.

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