While promoting careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to Alaska’s youth, employees at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District are getting inspired, too.
Bruce Sexauer, chief of the Civil Works Planning Section, volunteered to judge a robotics competition for young adults. Unbeknownst to him, his daughter already was participating.
Four years later, Sexauer serves as head coach of his daughter’s Girl Scout robotics team. The “Electronically Overdressed Senioritas” are part of an international robotics league designed to empower children in science and technology.
Sexauer said team members learn skills in building, programming and troubleshooting their robots. Groups conduct critical research and perform at certain events as well. Competitions include scoring points on a themed playing surface and innovatively solving given problems.
“We spend a lot of time focusing on constructing the robot, but also programming and strategy,” Sexauer said.
The Corps recognizes that education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics plays a critical role in enabling the United States to remain an economic and technological leader in the global marketplace. The Corps is committed to teaming with others to strengthen STEM-related programs that inspire current and future generations of young people to pursue careers in those fields. Sexauer and other district employees are immersed in promoting this initiative.
“I think STEM is a critical part of the future for the kids,” Sexauer said. “You go into the high schools and you see the big trophies are only for athletics, but not anymore.”
Earlier this year, the Electronically Overdressed Senioritas took second place out of 80 teams at the state competition. In May, they will compete at the national invitation in Carlsbad, Calif. It’s the first time a Girl Scout team has earned the opportunity to compete at that level.
Sexauer said he motivates his squad to rise above themselves and collaborate using everyone’s individual strengths. While providing guidance and structure, he believes showing youth a vision and what they can accomplish is vital to their success.
“They want to be challenged,” he said.
Beth Astley, program manager in the Environmental and Special Programs Branch, promotes STEM in Alaska by mentoring her son’s Cub Scout den. The Webelos recently earned the scientist activity badge by conducting an experiment using yeast, sugar and water. The boys’ excitement grew when balloons spontaneously filled with gas produced from those ingredients, she said. Other experiments featured musical straws, rocket launches and pinewood derby racers.
In addition, the Webelos earned the naturalist, forester and outdoorsman activity badges through hands-on learning about local tree species, forest ecology, macroinvertebrates in local streams and migratory birds. They also participated in a creek conservation project.
“Not all kids get enough emphasis on STEM at school,” Astley said. “Volunteering as a Cub Scout leader has given me the opportunity to show these boys that STEM is interesting and fun.”
Meanwhile, the Alaska District hosts the biennial “Bring Your Youth to Work Day” to orient school-age children to the enjoyable aspects of STEM. Greg Schmidt, deputy chief of the Engineering Division, helps organize the event. He notices that kids come away with a big interest in archaeology and geographic information systems, he said.
“I think we have matured enough in the program that we’re able to reach out and show how science and engineering touches and interfaces with other professions like archaeology and cultural resources,” Schmidt said.
He also serves as an adult leader in Boy Scout and American Heritage Girls troops that both offer enhanced STEM initiatives. This year, two AHG troops in Anchorage completed work on the engineering merit badge Schmidt created for the national organization in 2010. The goal is to integrate technical life skills with leadership, character development, social skills and even spiritual principles at a level each age group can understand and enjoy, Schmidt said.
“We try to convey at the very beginning that engineering is a high calling, a profession entrusted with responsibility for public safety and health,” he said.
The group’s younger girls gained confidence designing, building and testing simple structures and foundation materials. Meanwhile, the older girls discussed engineering ethics, learned basic design principles for trebuchets and towers, and heard about engineering career fields from distinguished professionals.
“We try to make it fun while the kids are learning, and the feedback has been that they are having a blast,” Schmidt said.
For these district employees, promoting STEM education costs personal time outside of work. Astley has assisted with the Cub Scouts for the past four years and Sexauer estimates spending more than 300 hours of volunteer time to prepare his team for competition this season. Schmidt is engaged with Dimond High School’s engineering advisory board connecting assets and professional organizations to the school, too.
It’s this shared passion for STEM that drives them to volunteer. Clearly, children are not the only ones to benefit from the experience.