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CHIPS Articles: N-STAR: Naval Research-Science & Technology for America's Readiness

N-STAR: Naval Research-Science & Technology for America's Readiness
The quest for America's future scientists and engineers.
By Sharon Anderson - July-September 2006
Naval Research — Science and Technology for America's Readiness, or N-STAR, is a program within the Office of Naval Research. Its purpose is the development of the next generation of Navy scientists and engineers to ensure that the Department of the Navy maintains a leading edge in warfighting technologies for national defense.

To this end, N-STAR director, Bob Kavetsky, said the Office of Naval Research, under the leadership of Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. William Landay, in cooperation with the Navy's warfare centers, is developing a suite of programs that the Navy hopes will result in bringing on board 4,000 new scientists and engineers over the next 10 years.


According to ONR, the N-STAR program combines vital efforts to replenish the anticipated loss of federal science and technology (S&T) employees who will reach retirement age in the next 10 years. One effort involves generating student interest in science and engineering fields and recruiting these students for service in the Navy's labs and warfare centers.

The Office of Personnel Management estimates that 60 percent of the federal government's workforce will be eligible to retire over the next 10 years and that 40 percent will likely retire. Competition between government agencies and private industry for the shrinking pool of newly graduating engineers and scientists is expected to be keen. According to ONR, agencies that are unprepared to replace retiring employees will find themselves in a bind when they see their intellectual capital walking out the door.

"The next 10 to 15 years could be a golden age for the mass transfer of corporate knowledge from our existing population of 'greybeards' and technical experts to the next generation of scientists and engineers coming into the system," Kavetsky said. "NASA has paid the price by letting a lot of its corporate smarts go out the door. The Department of Energy ran into this same problem with its nuclear weapons programs, so the Navy is not unique in this regard."

According to ONR, there are about 22,000 scientists and engineers in the DON, of which about 4,000 of whom are card-carrying members of the S&T community. These are professionals who perform basic and applied research.

Up to half of these civilian scientists and engineers are eligible to retire in the next several years and with fewer U.S. students graduating with advanced science and engineering degrees, a crisis in replacing these employees is anticipated — unless decisive action is taken now.

"They are in my view, the pointy end of the spear, the intellectual spear. They are the ones that interface with the universities and know what is happening in global research arenas. In my view, they are a critical piece of the whole naval research enterprise," Kavetsky said.

Launching N-STAR

By engaging personnel from the naval warfare centers in active outreach programs, N-STAR has been effective in introducing young people to the benefits and joys of careers in Navy research. According to ONR, it is important to let young scientists and engineers know that there are challenging opportunities in the Navy, where they can have the flexibility and satisfaction of performing independent research — with a chance to serve their country.

A few years ago, ONR, under the N-STAR program, initiated a scholarship program between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Navy. The NSF/N-STAR Civilian Service scholarship program, or NNCS, targets recruiting efforts at juniors and seniors in college and graduate students. The students receive fellowship money and incur a service obligation as civil service employees in a naval research and development (R&D) center.

While it may seem ironic that young people are not drawn to these areas of study since today's teenagers and young adults are plugged into mobile electronic devices like never before, Kavetsky said their knowledge of the science that makes these devices possible is superficial at best.

"In my opinion, children are using those devices like toys and at the toy level. When you want somebody to get excited about science or engineering, you have to work deep into those fields. Children today are just scratching the surface. Even at the high school level, and in early college, these students are shallow in their understanding of the enabling technology. They are whizzes at how to apply it because of their quick reflexes. But our kids are 'wired' because we have given them neat toys not because they have an appreciation of the underlying science," Kavetsky said.

Recognizing this paradox, ONR began looking at engaging student interest in science and technology at a younger age by forming partnerships with local and state government, and academic leaders, which led to an outreach program with schools and universities in Virginia.

The Virginia Demonstration Project

The commonwealth of Virginia joined with ONR to expand the N-STAR program to reach students at the middle school level in 2004. Virginia entered into the program when staffers from Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner's office became interested in N-STAR through a brief given to Congress by National Science Foundation staff. Sen. Warner's office provided $1.8 million in the Navy's S&T budget in fiscal year 2005 for the Virginia Demonstration Project. In FY 2006, Sen. Warner's office provided an additional $2.1 million.

The VDP was launched in partnership with one of the premier research and development centers in the Navy, the Navy Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Dahlgren, Va. About 35 Dahlgren scientists and engineers work with middle school teachers and students. In 2005, Dahlgren staged a summer camp for about 100 students. NSWC engineers and scientists provide mentorship and help to students. A portion of the VDP funds are assisting three NSWC employees obtain doctoral degrees.

Doctoral degrees are going to be the level of expertise needed to play in the global S&T arena, according to Kavetsky.

"One of the unique things that has happened by design, is that NSWC doctoral candidates act as role models to the students. These Ph.D. candidates are newer at Dahlgren and relate better to middle school students than somebody my age," Kavetsky said.

Other key partners in the Virginia Demonstration Project's success are Dr. Eugene Brown, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and VDP program director, Bob Stiegler, a retired Dahlgren engineer. They put a strong team together which included partnership with the College of William and Mary and school systems in Stafford, King George and Spotsylvania counties.

This year about 1,700 students from Spotsylvania, Stafford and King George County middle schools, in addition to the Dahlgren DoD middle school, participated in the VDP. Two summer camps are also planned at NSWC in Dahlgren. Each camp can accommodate about 100 students.

According to Kavetsky, igniting children's interest in science and technology at the middle school level has been a fascinating experience with some unexpected results.

"When you are in middle school, math problems have a fixed answer. What we have seen in our program is when you get a real working engineer in the classroom with the middle school teacher, showing the students that the problems that we are working on are not in the textbook and do not necessarily have pat answers, or they have multiple answers sometimes creates a spark with students," Kavetsky said.

The inspiration to drawing student interest has been in showing students real-world problems and challenging them to find practical solutions.

"The problem set students chose last year was how do you use unmanned surface, undersea and air vehicles to address the world's landmine problem. When Bob Stiegler, VDP program director, told me they had chosen that topic, I looked at him like he must have gone crazy. But he told me the teachers and students picked that problem because they had found that the largest population worldwide affected by landmines is children," Kavetsky said.

"The children in middle school saw that for their compatriots in other countries this was a big deal. What the children have seen is that there is a whole world of problems to which we do not have textbook answers. The teachers have seen children show some interest in their studies. That is what the program is all about — exciting the students about science and mathematics studies," Kavetsky said.

Students worked in project teams of six to eight, which was a fundamental ingredient to success, according to Kavetsky. Students used creativity and their knowledge of other subjects such as English and art to complete their projects.

"Somebody had to write up project reports, others had to make displays. They did not all have to become 'technology weenies' because they could use other skill sets in executing the project," Kavetsky said.

The Navy would like to duplicate this success in every other state where it has a presence, such as where the R&D centers are located, but according to Kavetsky, the program is scalable across DoD. "We have already been in discussions with the Office of Secretary of Defense about how to expand something like this DoD-wide. ONR R&D centers across the Navy bring a mass of scientists and engineers to draw from. They all live in communities, so it is easy to link them up with their local school systems," Kavetsky said.

The VDP is open to all students from participating schools. There are no prerequisites or entry fees.

"One of the aspects of the program that I am excited about is that this program is not just for the gifted and talented — it is designed for all children. We are making this a regular part of the school day. This is not an after school activity that students sign up for voluntarily. Our push is to get all children to some degree exposed to this and some children really excited about it," Kavetsky said.

Knowledge Transfer

The N-STAR program manages about $15 million a year of In-house Laboratory Independent Research (ILIR) money that is sent from ONR to the technical directors of the major naval warfare centers. Those technical directors pick the projects in which their centers will be engaged. In FY 2002, ONR launched the In-house Applied Research (IAR) piece of N-STAR with $4 million of applied research money.

Kavetsky calls the money "seed corn" for new research topics that focus on specific mission areas. For example, NSWC Dahlgren performs basic research in the areas of combat systems and chemistry-biology. The Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I., performs research in submarine technology. At NSWC Indian Head, Md., energetics scientists work with explosive molecules.

ONR teams new junior level scientists and engineers with a seasoned employee to start the transfer of corporate knowledge to the next generation. There are about 20 IAR projects that team three or four junior level people with a senior level scientist.

Shaping Future Leaders

Instead of just focusing on research work, N-STAR built a leadership component into the NSF/N-STAR Civilian Service scholarship program last year. The students, who are from the top universities in the country, step away from their studies for three days to do a self-assessment about their careers.

Initially, they went to the workshop wondering what they were doing there and, in many cases, their advisers were not happy about them attending, since it entailed three days away from their research work. But it was a valuable experience, according to Kavetsky.

"They saw in dealing with our people at NSWC Carderock how you apply some of what their graduate studies are all about. They appreciated the time to reflect on their own careers and their future leadership roles in our S&T community," Kavetsky said.

Communications Outreach

There is also a formal communications component for the N-STAR program, which encompasses newsletters, symposiums and program Web sites.

The N-STAR flagship publication is STARLINK, which contains program highlights and research initiatives across the naval warfare centers and labs. STARLINK is available online at

N-STAR is also reaching out to naval officers in all designators.

"In the Navy, other than medical officers, there are roughly 42,000 naval officers, of those, 119 have doctoral degrees. Everybody has the perception that the Navy is the technology service. I am not so sure that is the case. The Air Force has more than 1,000 Ph.D.s in its officer corps. One of the things we decided in our N-STAR program is that we needed our future naval officers to have an appreciation of science and technology," Kavetsky said.

To showcase naval S&T careers and their importance to the future of the Navy, 70 leading scientists and engineers from NSWC Dahlgren led a three-day conference for the midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy last year. The conference was a win-win proposition for both the midshipmen and their instructors who began to form relationships with NSWC scientists and engineers.

"We have gotten unbelievably positive feedback from our scientists and engineers who enjoyed interfacing with the students at the Naval Academy. They are bright students and ask a lot of good questions. The Naval Academy faculty appreciated it because it makes their jobs easier in showing students at the university level how to apply calculus, chemistry and physics to problems.… Our scientists can explain how the sonar transducers on Navy submarines work. It was a valuable exercise," Kavetsky said.

N-STAR plans to take the technology conference to the Naval Postgraduate School this year to naval officers who are working on advanced degrees.

"We are trying to make sure that at the end of the day our naval officers have an appreciation of what technology is doing for them in a military sense and that they have formed some relationships with our science and engineering community across the Navy. That is what we are here for, to support them. Having them know where that energetic molecule came from is a healthy thing to do," Kavetsky said.

Few would argue that the economic power of the United States and its military might are built on a robust science and technology community, which includes U.S. universities, Defense Department and government labs, and high tech industry.

"You are seeing India and China graduating increasing numbers of students with S&T degrees, and we want to ensure we have a robust supply of U.S. citizens earning engineering and science degrees," Kavetsky said. "We need to encourage children at a young age to become interested in science and mathematics."

For more information about N-STAR go to or phone (703) 696-4126.

TAGS: ITAM, Workforce
Middle school students brief their Navy civilian engineer mentor, Homar Rivera, a branch head from NSWC Dahlgren, about their robotics project at a Virginia Demonstration Project event at the Fredericksburg, Va., Exposition Center. The VDP event attracted about 1,700 students April 13, 2006.
N-STAR Director Bob Kavetsky, Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. William Landay and VDP Director Bob Stiegler
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