By Amy Guckeen Tolson, staff writerJune 7, 2013
It was just another school visit for Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the 53rd chief of engineers and commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, who has made it a habit of stopping by Randolph Elementary School in Arlington, Va., where his wife Renee is principal, to encourage and inspire students to study the STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- fields. But as he posed for a picture with a student, he had no idea of the impact he had made on that young man.
When he ran into the student's mother a year later, he was humbled when she told him, "He has that picture above his bed now, and he wants to be like you when he grows up."
"I never knew that," said Bostick, who spoke at last week's Team Redstone Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month observance. "A lot of times you don't know what you're doing by just showing up and making a presentation. That's why we've encouraged folks in the Corps, our military and civilians, to reach out and explain what you do. Youngsters will decide whether that might be a way for them. I don't know if he liked being an engineer or a Soldier or both, but it had an impact on him by going to the classroom. You don't have to be a general; you can be a young intern. You don't have to be a Soldier; you can be a civilian. You can make a difference."
Never has that difference been needed more than in today's education world, where the U.S. is falling behind other nations when it comes to the STEM fields. Only 14 countries produce a smaller percentage of engineers than the U.S., according to Bostick.
"We have an enormous challenge with encouraging our youth to continue to keep the doors open for a possible career in STEM by studying the STEM-type courses," he said. "We know that we're not where we want to be."
Bostick explained that if you take a look at 100 students who go to college in the U.S., only four of those students will receive an engineering degree, compared to 11 in Russia and 31 in China. Out of 100 U.S. engineering graduates, only 10 will be women, five black or Hispanic.
"Whether we need to have 31 or not can be debatable, but four is a lot less than what we need," Bostick said. "We need to encourage this because we need the great men and women who are going to be our future engineers and do the work like we see here at Huntsville, because a lot of this work is very high tech, very classified and secret, and we can't go outside of our citizens in order to do much of this work. We need to produce enough engineers in this country that can do the great work that we know we're capable of doing."
Leading by example, Bostick himself makes it a point to get into the schools on a regular basis to interact with students. His last presentation took kids on a "field trip" to the mighty Mississippi, where they traveled 1,300 miles learning about water flow, drinking water, electricity brought by dams, flood risk management and more.
"We're engaged to just use ourselves as role models, as examples and use the great work we do, whether it's finishing the Panama Canal, doing the Washington Monument, the Capitol Dome, or newer things like the work we did post-Katrina, about $14 billion worth of work down there, post-Hurricane Sandy, $5 billion worth of work is going to go there, to encourage youngsters of the need," Bostick said.
While the STEM fields are often a tougher road for students to take with harder classes and oftentimes more schooling, Bostick encouraged those with a passion for those areas to persist.
"Keep your doors open," he said. "It will take some time before you determine what it is you really like to do. I tell my wife sometimes I'm still trying to figure that out myself. I've done a lot of things and I like what I'm doing, but you're always educating yourself.
"What they are teaching you in school, it's the right things. Learn to like all of them and be passionate about it. At some point in your life you'll figure out where those skills will take you. If you close off something like math or science, or reading or writing, you close off a lot of opportunities that you might otherwise have and you might find that you're very strong in something later in life, where you have a passion."
A military child, Bostick admittedly joined the Army for the scholarship opportunity and fell into engineering as a student at West Point, the first engineering school in the nation, where his classes included topics like electrical engineering, thermal dynamics, calculus and differential equations. By the time he graduated in 1978 with a bachelor of science degree, he had found his passion.
"Engineering is just in my blood from being a cadet," he said. "Like everyone you want to do something that you're passionate about and that you're good at, and for me, I did well in engineering, I did well in math and science, and I developed a passion for the Army. I can't say that I immediately wanted to do it. My dad was in the Army for 26.5 years and it was a hard life. He fought in Vietnam and Korea and was away from home all the time. I thought, 'Man, that's pretty hard. I don't know if I could do that for 26.5 years.' I have 35 now and I feel like he got out early."
It was never the path his father intended for him, however. When Bostick graduated from high school his father surreptitiously decorated his cake in crossed rifles, the symbol of infantry, an attempt to point his son in the direction he thought he should go. The elder Bostick knew from experience, having served as an engineer in the Korean War, that the engineers were out in front, blowing up and breaching bridges, while the infantry provided protection for them. When his son came home with engineer castles on his lapel, he simply told him, "Good luck."
Today more than three decades have passed since his father wished him well. Throughout his career Bostick has served in a variety of roles, including deputy chief of staff, G-1, personnel, Army; commanding general, Army Recruiting Command; director of military programs, Army Corps of Engineers with duty as commander, Gulf Region division, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraq. He became the 53rd chief of engineers and commander of the Army Corps of Engineers May 22, 2012.
"The Corps of Engineers is an amazing organization that does so much for the Army, the Department of Defense, the nation and around the world," Bostick said. "We're in 132 different countries, we support all the commanders and the war fight, but we're also doing great things in every state in this nation. Each day when I walk out the door and visit a Corps employee, I learn something new about the capabilities and the attributions that this great organization offers. It's truly impressive."