NATICK, Mass. -- A hands-on science demonstration called "The Science behind the Soldier" has proven to be a great tool for the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, outreach.

The hands-on science demonstration was developed by Peggy Auerbach, an NSRDEC textile technologist, and Jo Ann Ratto, an NSRDEC plastics engineer. The "Science behind the Soldier" provides students with a Soldier point of view and takes them through the research and development process for Soldier equipment.

The station helps make students aware of the scientific and engineering challenges inherent in equipping a Soldier to perform his or her mission, as well as how and why certain items are developed.

"This is a STEM activity that makes the students 'Soldiers for the Day,'" said Ratto. "The 'Soldiers' are given a mission and need to make some decisions about what supplies they need in the field. They need to make decisions on food, water, clothing and shelter. The 'Soldiers' (students) have an interactive experience and learn a lot about material science, how the gear works and what these materials are made from."

"They also learn what's behind the design -- what considerations need to be taken when designing an item and how it will interface with the Soldier and other components," said Auerbach. "Hopefully, students will not only learn about the science behind the Soldier but will gain a greater appreciation for our Soldiers and understand the challenges they face on a daily basis."

It was full STEAM ahead as the activity was a big hit at a Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math, or STEAM, event at the Josiah Haynes Elementary School in Sudbury, Mass. Auerbach, Ratto and Ellen Merrill, an NSRDEC research psychologist, gave students the opportunity to experience the unique station at the school's second annual STEAM Carnival.

More than 400 students and teachers took part in the STEAM Carnival. Many of the participants were impressed with NSRDEC's "The Science behind the Soldier." The interactive station provided students with hands-on demonstrations of NSRDEC core technologies and capabilities, giving them a greater understanding of how NSRDEC provides the military with innovative science and technology solutions to optimize the performance of warfighters.

"The students and teachers loved it," said Merrill. "It was one of the favorite stations at the event."

"This particular STEM activity allows the students to understand how much STEM is involved in developing high performing items which keep the Soldier safe," said Ratto. "In general, STEM activities for students are powerful. STEM activities educate the students about different technologies and careers. Any outreach STEM program can significantly influence and impact the younger generation."

"The station provides an interactive experience where students can learn about real-world applications of STEM," said Merrill. "Students that stopped by the station had a chance to don helmets and body armor, use a compass and examine MREs (how many calories are in each meal and why). It offers students an interesting and fun way to learn about the military and engages them at an early age when STEM knowledge and skills are beginning to take root."

"The Science behind the Soldier" display was developed through NSRDEC's Bootstrap Initiative. The initiative encourages innovation, creativity, risk-taking, and employee participation, all while streamlining processes and minimizing bureaucracy.

Through the Bootstrap program, government civilian NSRDEC employees are allowed to submit proposals for a new technology, research project, business process, or administrative process that supports NSRDEC's science and technology mission.

The "Science behind the Soldier" project was voted by NSRDEC employees to obtain Bootstrap funding in 2017 and was chosen again in 2018. Through 2018 funding, the station will be expanded upon and bring together all aspects of NSRDEC's work in clothing, equipment, shelters, airdrop and food, highlighting such areas as artificial intelligence, load-bearing exoskeletons, improved body armor, cognitive enhancements, and improved human performance -- to name just a few areas.

The Bootstrap Initiative made creating and funding the station possible.

"Without Bootstrap and Peggy's ideas and leadership, this station would not have happened," said Ratto. "This is an activity that any subject matter expert can take to the classroom or perform here on base. Much thanks to Ellen for extending an invitation to demo the station at the STEAM Carnival. This learning event totally engaged all the students."

Auerbach, Ratto, and Merrill are all committed to STEM outreach. Merrill explained that it is important that students are aware that they themselves can be innovators.

"As we move further into the 21st century, it is vital that we share with the next generation STEM skills and abilities and the opportunities that are possible," said Merrill.

"When we get excited and show our passion, then that just gets passed onto the children and learning becomes fun for them," said Ratto.

"By engaging students in STEAM at an early age and igniting their interest in science, we have the potential to influence the future of science, which is both an exciting and rewarding experience," said Auerbach.

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The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities that provide decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the joint warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.