Sen. John Warner, R-Va., told about 1,700 middle school students that they are the future of the country at the Virginia Demonstration Project (VDP) Exposition in Fredericksburg, Va., where students were showcasing their scientific achievements.
"America is falling behind," Warner said, "as we train 70,000 scientists and engineers this year, China graduates 600,000 scientists and engineers. We need a wake-up call, and you are sending that wake-up call."
The VDP is a part of the N-STAR (Naval Research — Science and Technology for America’s Readiness) program, which was launched in 2004 by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). It was initiated to show young students that careers in math, science and engineering are fascinating, fun and socially relevant.
"There are worlds of problems waiting for you to solve," said the Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. William Landay. "You have discovered that engineering is really a lot of fun when you can get your hands on it," said Landay, who is also the Assistant Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Science and Technology.
Conceived as a multi-year, state-wide outreach effort involving high schools, middle schools and community colleges, the VDP is in its first phase and is limited to middle schools in King George, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties. The VDP program uses the science and engineering staff of the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren Division as mentors to the students and teachers.
A host of military and civilian leaders joined Sen. Warner and Rear Adm. Landay April 13 to commend the students and endorse the VDP program that gave the students an opportunity to work in their classrooms side-by-side with Navy scientists and engineers on technological projects designed to solve today’s problems.
"The students were outstanding in their presentations and in tying the technology to real-world environmental issues," said VDP program director Bob Stiegler, a retired engineer from the NSWC Dahlgren Division. "It is evident by the level of the speakers and the number and level of those in attendance, that the project has a broad base of support. And not just in words, but through active support of the leadership on all levels - Sen. Warner’s office, ONR, NSWC Dahlgren, the county school districts and the universities."
The VDP Expo confirmed for attendees, including NSWC Dahlgren Division Commanding Officer Capt. Joseph McGettigan, Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce officials, King George, Stafford and Spotsylvania county middle school principles and school board members that a new generation of Americans can indeed make the world better and assist in national security efforts armed with math and science skills.
Students, working in teams of six to eight, used robots, computers, Microsoft PowerPoint presentations and movies they wrote, narrated and produced to explain their creative solutions to save lives, clean oil spills and clear mines from land and water.
"This is the American dream - developing things to make people’s lives better," McGettigan said. "When we give these kids a problem, there’s a lot of excitement as we watch their enthusiasm in solving it with a skill and technical savvy they didn’t have before."
One way VDP generates the interest of students in math and science is through their teachers. The program provides middle school teachers with opportunities to team with scientists and engineers from the mentor-rich environment at the naval warfare centers.
"We were able to see science and engineering in real jobs doing real things for all of us," said Dr. Jean Murray, Superintendent of Stafford County Public Schools. "Our students learned more than science and math. They have learned about creativity and problem solving, and how to learn by sharing information."
VDP common themes featured robotics problems that were integrated into four subject areas: math, science, language arts and civics. "N-STAR definitely changed my mind," said Kaitlin McDonough, an H.H. Poole Middle School seventh-grader, after giving a brief about how to clean up an oil spill and protect coral reefs and marine life. "Before our project, I saw math as just numbers."
Mentors from NSWC Dahlgren, approximately 35 scientists and engineers, shared real-world experiences to shape positive perceptions about math and science among students preparing for high school. "Although this program was developed to encourage young people to consider careers in technical fields, working with these young minds reinvigorated me and made me more appreciative of my work," said Bruce Copeland, a Strategic and Weapon Control Systems Department engineer, who mentored students at Chancellor Middle School.
"With all the reports about the inability of young people to concentrate on a single task, it was enlightening to see the focus and intensity of purpose that some of the young men and women could bring to bear on solving a complex problem. It improves my outlook for the future of our nation," Copeland said.
VDP’s ultimate goal is to establish educational outreach programs at other Navy research and development centers throughout the country. The initiative could eventually expand beyond the Navy and evolve into a national demonstration project encompassing all the Defense Department laboratories in a sustained effort to secure the long-term competitiveness of America’s science and technology workforce by hooking more students on math and science at an earlier age.
"After approaching this problem from a practical aspect, our students have a clearer understanding of what public policy is and can see themselves in the future as citizens who have an active part to play in public policy," said H. H. Poole Middle School civics teacher Nancy Vitale.
For more information about the Virginia Demonstration Project, go to the N-STAR Web site at http://www.nstarweb.com/.