BALTIMORE, Maryland -- More than 80 students from eight different counties throughout the State of Maryland -- some driving for more than three hours -- gathered in Baltimore, Md., to dissect a squid, investigate a crime scene, and compete in a windmill competition. What may seem as a day of simple games and experiments actually represents a critical step forward in furthering the awareness of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
With forecasted shortages in students pursuing a STEM education, and only 16 percent of high school seniors proficient in math according the Department of Education, the emphasis on STEM outreach continues to grow throughout the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"In China, they will graduate 700,000 engineers a year," said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Commanding General Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick. "We do about 70,000 in America. And, many of those engineers go back to their home countries."
Several districts throughout the Corps have expanded and amped up their STEM outreach. Baltimore District, for example, partners with Maryland schools, which are ranked number one in the country, to conduct many of these events.
So far this year, Baltimore District employees have participated in more than 30 STEM events, reaching 6,400 students.
Most recently, members of the Baltimore District and the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) organized the fifth annual "Easy As Pi" event, a STEM based outreach program held at the Engineers Club in Mount Vernon, Md.
District employee Emily Schiffmacher spearheads the program as a member of the SAME Baltimore Post's Scholarship and Educational Outreach Committee and serves as a military project management section chief for the Environmental and Munitions Design Center.
After hearing about a STEM program started in Pennsylvania and the declining interest in engineering fields, Schiffmacher was inspired to join forces with the SAME to create "Easy As Pi."
"Easy As Pi" hosts local professionals from a variety of STEM related fields to educate participants on future career possibilities. The program caters toward specific student interests and exposes them to the exciting world of STEM opportunities. More than 80 middle school students attended this year's program.
"Programs such as 'Easy As Pi' are very important to our post because the declination of engineering students in our country has been plaguing our industry for many years," said Matt Wallace, SAME Baltimore Post president. "These types of STEM events help us promote, enhance, and reinforce the professional and technical competence of present and future engineers through outreach, training, and continuing education programs for kindergarten through 12th grade students."
Since "Easy As Pi" began in 2008, the event continues to expand each year and attract more schools. In part, the program has gained popularity as attendees return to their schools to share their experiences. Additionally, the agencies sending representatives to provide information about STEM career fields keeps going strong.
"We continually receive outstanding feedback from teachers, students and parents on our involvement in the mentoring of the students through these STEM programs," said Wallace.
This was the first year that schools from the Eastern Shore traveled to Baltimore to participate.
"It still amazes me that Allegany and Washington County schools will drive two to three hours to participate," said Schiffmacher.
This year's program featured interactive presentations from the National Aquarium, Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, the University of Maryland Baltimore County Department of Visual Arts, Weston Solutions, NASA, Johns Hopkins, and the Maryland State Police.
Presenters kept the students busy with interactive activities such as dissecting a squid, creating photography light shows, testing for blood at a mock crime scene, competing to build energy-efficient fans, checking peer heart rates, and others, captured the students attention and had many of them wanting more.
Kathy Fuller, National Aquarium, assisted the students with dissecting squid. "They had no qualms with getting their hands dirty," she said. "Many students came by to my room during the lunch break to ask many questions and investigate the squid even if they did not have the opportunity to participate in the squid dissection."
Fellow presenter Edward Wollack, a NASA astrophysicist, explains the importance of hands on approach to science.
"We each explore the Universe with our senses -- the act of critically testing and sharing these observations is part of the adventure we call science," he said. "Hands-on activities can provide a simple and approachable means to gain physical intuition about how things work. The value I see in taking the time to engage youth with such puzzles is the possibility that they might continue to search for and share the patterns they see and continue in the STEM career path."
Schiffmacher has seen firsthand how the value in STEM events ignites interest in future generations through the many thank you letters students send after the event. Learning goes beyond the program and encourages students to seek out STEM careers that appeal to them directly.
"This event helps spark interest in STEM and develop our future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians," said Schiffmacher. "It is extremely rewarding to see the kids smile and get excited about STEM. It's important to show students that STEM is more than just reading textbooks. It really is fun!"
The Baltimore District and SAME Baltimore Post are planning future STEM events as the partnership has proven to be beneficial to all those involved in the program. There are many members of SAME within the District, which also makes the partnership a lasting one.
"SAME Baltimore will always do everything we can to support STEM Programs because we enjoy the interaction with the students and teachers," said Wallace. "We also believe that creating this awareness to children is paramount to the successful future of the engineering profession in our great nation."