WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, young Aisha Haynes had to answer the same tough question every high school student eventually has to answer: What do you want to be when you grow up?
The answer arrived during a summer camp program, where she was introduced to chemical engineers. She already knew she liked science and math. So the idea appealed to her. "So, I went ahead and said, 'I am going to go and do engineering,'" she recalled. "And I stuck with it."
Today, Dr. Haynes is a research mechanical engineer at the Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center in New Jersey. She was recognized Friday as a Modern-Day Technology Leaders award-winner at the 31st annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Conference.
Now she is giving back, trying to encourage others to learn about the STEM program and the field of engineering. At the conference, she was among more than 100 Army leaders, who were joining forces with educators and other STEM professionals to mentor and mingle with students of all ages.
THE ARMY'S INTEREST IN STEM
"I think this entire conference is such a great idea, and I have watched it grow over the years," said Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and United States Forces Korea.
The BEYA STEM Conference serves as an engagement tool for the Defense Department, but it also offers students the opportunity to learn more about STEM careers in all of the branches of service, including the Army, which employs STEM professionals in a variety of fields.
"I want to make sure [the students' eyes] are open to the reality that there is no limit to what it is they can do," the general said. "I want them to prepare themselves, because when opportunity meets preparations -- that's when achievement occurs."
The Army Educational Outreach Program provides apprentice opportunities for high school students and undergrads. The program accepts more than 600 students per year at more than 20 Army locations and partners with 90 different universities, according to the Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command officials.
RDECOM's 13,700 employees represent 5 percent of all Army Civilians. That includes more than 10,000 scientists and engineers, spread throughout seven facilities. They represent 56 percent of the Army's Safety and Occupational Health Career Program, officials said.
"Anytime a person decides to come into the Department of Defense, they have made a commitment to public service," observed Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, commanding general of RDECOM at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
"The fascination and creativity of these young folks gives me a good feeling that the Army will be able to meet its demand in the future. The young, talented scientists and engineers will be able to continue the work of the scientists and engineers we have now."
BUILDING FUTURE LEADERS
Haynes was fortunate enough to start her job right after completing her undergraduate degree. Working for the Army, she said, provided her with a lot of growth potential and additional education experience.
"They say true engineers have the knack at a very young age," Haynes said. "They take things apart and like to see how things work. Some students will fail to have an opportunity, if they don't have a proper introduction to engineering at a young age."
In addition to her "nine to five," Haynes is a mother of daughters who range in age from 5 to 17. Her daughters' high school will introduce them to the STEM program, she said. In many ways, they have had more opportunities than she did growing up.
"If I started earlier, with an introduction to STEM, I might have taken more opportunity when I was an undergrad, or even in high school," Haynes said. "It would have probably put me further ahead than when I started."
That proper introduction was the major reason why Karyn Baines, the middle school principal at Riverdale Baptist School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, brought a select group of students to attend the conference. During the event, she encouraged them to ask questions and interact with the vast array of professionals representing the STEM industry.
"For our middle school students, this is exposing them to the different STEM careers," she said. "They are learning about STEM in school … but they have not seen it in action. It is bringing it to life for them."
This was Riverdale Baptist's first visit, but according to Baines, it won't be the last. Her middle schoolers also had the opportunity to participate in a mentor session, which provided some critical thinking and hands-on activities.
"When we could bring the future leaders, as you called them -- industry, current practitioners of the military and leadership -- bringing them all to the same place and having a conversation with one another, we're passing on this tribal wisdom," Brooks said. "This is really passing on the torch from one generation to the next by simply having a conversation."
BUILDING BRIDGES THROUGH NETWORKING
The primary goal of the BEYA STEM Conference, according to the conference organizers, is to foster relationships between students, educators, and STEM professionals and connect individuals with STEM resources. For DOD, the conference has the added benefit of providing a proper forum for young professionals to network with recruiters.
"Now that technology is increasing and becoming more popular, people want to come to these conferences," said Arafun Azad, a psychology major who graduated from SBU. "From a younger age, you're kind of building your way toward your career."
At the conference, Arafun was accompanied by a couple of her SBU peers: Abrar Hossian, a senior and mechanical engineering major, and Fathea Azad, a health and nutrition sciences graduate. The three spent a majority of their time looking for future opportunities in their fields.
"I was considering [joining the military], and maybe sometime in the future I would look into it and see if that was an option or an opportunity for me," Hossian said.
The time he spent at the conference, combined with the information that he has received from several of his friends, has taught him that the Army, as well as other services, can lead to many different job opportunities in the field of engineering.