Students share STEM ambitions with USACE

USACE Europe District
Published June 4, 2015
WIESBADEN, Germany -- It can be hard to pin down a dream job in middle school. It can even be tricky to focus on a specific field of study at that age. But six local Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe students have their minds set on careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District personnel hosted the STEM Essay Contest winners from Wiesbaden and Sembach middle schools Thursday at the Amelia Earhart Center in Wiesbaden, Germany. The first-place winners from the sixth, seventh and eighth grades participated in a day of hands-on activities, presentations, a mock ribbon-cutting ceremony and construction-site scavenger hunt.

Joshua Sewell, Zachary Mouritsen and Peggy Sue Mathis represented Wiesbaden Middle School and were joined by Taja Hicks, Jennifer White and Le'Jhanique Brown from Sembach. In the essays, each winner successfully explained why he or she is interested in STEM subjects and career paths.

The future is bright for these students, said Maj. Russell Destremps, a district special projects engineer.

"I was particularly impressed by a common theme in each essay--the desire to pursue a STEM career field because the students view it as the best opportunity to use their talents to improve the lives of others," he said. "I think that selfless mindset in 10- to 12-year-old students is just awesome."

Le'Jhanique, Sembach's eighth-grade winner, is interested in a science-based career, she wrote in her essay.

"I am really into life science and plan to make the world a better place and help other people," she said.

Wiesbaden's eighth-grade winner, Peggy Sue, plans to use all four STEM disciplines to solve many of the world's environmental problems, she wrote.

"Pollution, climate change and the global population -- these are just some of the world's major problems I would like to solve," she said.

Europe District colleagues, together with Lt. Col. Charles Hemphill, the deputy district commander, kicked off "STEM Adopt a Student Day" by presenting certificates of achievement and Army and Air Force Exchange Services gift cards to the student winners, and conducting a mock ribbon-cutting ceremony in the executive office.

Afterward, four district volunteers representing various branches and areas of expertise shared presentations with the students.

Emile Pitre, a district project manager and chemical engineer, spoke about the importance of establishing a strong educational foundation and shared his career highlights working for Dow Chemical, the Environmental Protection Agency and Europe District.

The discussion then transitioned to missile defense. Tim Hess, the district's Missile Defense Branch chief, highlighted his team's mission -- to execute construction of the land-based Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense complexes in Romania and Poland. The U.S. facilities are designed to boost regional stability and strengthen NATO's collective security.

Zachary, an aspiring aerospace engineer, enjoyed the videos of missile-intercept tests.

"I like the rockets and what goes into them and how they work," he said. "The radar is cool because it helps detect and stop missiles. Designing rockets is what I want to do."

Vanessa Pepi, a district biologist, spoke on endangered species. She explained a project she managed to increase the population of endangered greater horseshoe bats in and around the Hohenfels Training Area. The project included bat monitoring, installation of bat boxes and renovation of old buildings and cellars to be used as converted bat habitats. As a result, its population in the area has increased by more than 50 percent since 2009.

Peggy Sue was excited to learn there are professionals like Pepi who work to save endangered species and animal habitats.

"I didn't know I could make an actual career out of saving animals; now I am more interested in that," she said.

The final presenter, Destremps, took a different approach. He challenged the students with a design exercise. Each student was given five minutes to read the instructions on his or her design sheet and create an architectural drawing.

The students didn't know it, but each set of instructions were different. Some were vague -- draw a two-story house, while others were more detailed -- draw a two-story house with a detached garage to the left and a shed in the backyard.

At the end of the exercise, each student presented a unique design -- only one met the project requirements. This demonstrated the pitfall of unclear instructions and poor communication, Destremps said.

"This exercise was aimed at engaging the students and highlighting that STEM problems often require collaborative solutions and teamwork," he said. "Learning how to communicate your ideas and understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team members is critical to solving any complex problem. Being an effective communicator of your ideas can be just as important as the ideas themselves."

To continue the learning process, Erika McCormick, an Environmental Branch project manager, took the students outside for a water-sampling activity. McCormick required the students to suit up in personal protective equipment, just as she would do in the field, to safely collect samples.

The kids were excited when they worked in accordance with environmental protocol, McCormick said.

"They were enthusiastic to see how to administer the tests and to learn the water-quality results," she said. "It's an opportunity to show them where STEM is applied in the real world."

As a frequent STEM volunteer, McCormick was thrilled to see the district's outreach program expand.
"It was nice reaching out to another school and expanding our program to include Sembach," she said.

The day concluded with a scavenger hunt for materials and machines used on a USACE construction site. The students visited the Consolidated Intelligence Center Project Office on Clay Kaserne and met with Katie Archer, a civil engineer, and Austin Eidson, a project engineer.

Archer and Eidson also discussed the history and evolution of concrete as the most widely used building material in the world today -- thousands of cubic meters have been poured on-site at the CIC project.

After spending a day with engineers and environmentalists, the students had a clearer picture of what they do, and who they are.

"They felt like normal people; they were outgoing, but really smart," Peggy Sue said.

Zachary agreed.

"They were pretty cool, and what they do is pretty interesting," he said.

Le'Jhanique said she found the Europe District professionals friendly and helpful.

"They seemed like they had a lot of advice to give," she added.