The Army’s foundational research laboratory executes a unique program that helps high school students increase STEM literacy and build life skills to prepare them for higher education and careers.
ADELPHI, Md. — When the STEM outreach coordinator for the Army’s foundational research laboratory expressed interest in working with Native American students at the high school level, she never imagined that such a unique and needed program would be realized.
Catherine (Katie) Hall from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, known as DEVCOM, Army Research Laboratory serves as the program manager for the Navigate the Future Program, where the purpose is to inspire and equip Native American students to pursue higher education opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM.
“The overarching goal of this program is to increase Native American presence in the Department of Defense STEM pipeline,” Hall said. “We strive to help students increase STEM literacy and build life skills that help prepare them for higher education and ultimately careers. By learning directly from DEVCOM ARL and other Department of Defense subject matter experts, students gain firsthand exposure and knowledge about STEM career paths in computer science, biotechnology and various other disciplines.”
How did this program first come about you might ask? It all began with a conversation between Hall and ARL’s Chief of Educational Outreach, Dr. Patrice Collins.
“Dr. Collins had been the program manager for the DOD Tribal Colleges and Universities Faculty Fellowship Research Team within ARL,” Hall said. “When I told her that I was interested in working with Native American students at the high school level, she reached out to a former DOD TCU faculty member who had recently left Navajo Tech to go back to the reservation to be a teacher at Whitehorse High School. We had several discussions but still no funding to pursue a formal program.”
Then, Hall and team were presented with the opportunity to apply for National Defense Education Program funds. They put together a proposal, and it was selected.
The original proposal included a virtual program, but after visiting the high school, the team quickly learned that this mode of learning was not the right way to engage with these students. Quite a few of these students are behind their national peers by at least two grade levels. They need the assistance and encouragement received from in-person learning.
“Many have no electricity or running water at home, so even if we sent a computer home, they would be very limited with what they would be able to do,” Hall said. “These obstacles led to our postponement of the program execution by one year. We had much to learn, and we needed to engage face-to-face in order to build trust with the students and the community.”
According to Hall, the students in the program are initially shy and slow to trust. So, they enlisted support from former educators who are Navajo, one of whom is an elder, to provide cultural awareness and sensitivity training for the team. The two advisors remain with the program and continually provide training to program staff and actively engage during some of the sessions.
“Having these two advisors actively support the program speaks volumes to the students and their families,” Hall said.
For Hall, the development of this program has been personally very meaningful, especially this month as we honor Native American heritage.
“Diversity of thought and experience has shown to improve and expand outcomes, but these students are often overlooked and rarely have the chance to contribute,” Hall said. “This program is designed to help these students believe that they can be an essential part of our nation's future. Letting these students know that we value them and are invested in their future successes has led them to start believing in themselves. Watching them build self-confidence and start to realize their own potential has been rewarding and such an important result no matter their chosen future path.”
ARL’s Tiffany Raber serves as a mentor for the Navigate the Future Program, and believes the program is vital as it aligns with ARL's outreach mission of fostering a diverse and innovative scientific community for the future.
“By focusing on technology, specifically biotechnology and computer science, and delivering this curriculum to indigenous high school students, we are offering these underrepresented groups access to cutting-edge education and opportunities that they might not otherwise have,” Raber said. “This not only helps in reducing the opportunity gap but also ensures that the Army can benefit from these students' wide range of perspectives and skills. The students we teach today may become our colleagues in the future. Furthermore, the program supports the Army's commitment to diversity and inclusion, which is essential for a dynamic and robust defense ecosystem.”
Virginia To, ARL’s director of partnerships and intermediary programs for the Energetics Technology Center, is the computer science lead for the Navigate the Future, or NTF, Program.
“She has been instrumental to NTF’s success from the start by helping author the proposal, developing and modifying curriculum, serving as the lead computer science instructor and assisting with on-site operations,” Hall said. “Ginny has a passion to mentor students to learn and excel in computer science. Her experience and insight have been essential to the success of NTF.”
Moving into the future, Hall wants to figure out a way for ARL and the DOD to stay connected for this program. Without funding, they will not be able to continue the summer execution but are looking at mentoring opportunities and alternative programming. The team may also develop some virtual lessons students can work on at their own pace while obtaining assistance from trained on-site teachers.
In terms of advice she has for other organizations that wish to adopt a similar program, Hall believes prior to building a program, they should do their homework about the community, both culturally and logistically.
“We have many lessons learned and I am documenting them for others’ use,” Hall said. “Working with a remote community whose members often face basic physiological, safety and security needs makes the impact of these educational opportunities highly significant.”
As far as impact, the Navigate the Future Program has made a tremendous difference in the lives of the students the program supports.
For example, due to their involvement in the NTF Program, the students who received internships during the school year showed positive noticeable differences throughout their internship experiences in terms of work ethic, eagerness to learn and professionalism.
Hall hopes the program makes an even bigger impact as it grows and reaches students who may have the talent to succeed, but no access to the tools to help them achieve their goals.
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As the Army's foundational research laboratory, ARL is operationalizing science to achieve transformational overmatch. Through collaboration across the command’s core technical competencies, DEVCOM leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more successful at winning the nation’s wars and come home safely. DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. DEVCOM is a major subordinate command of the Army Futures Command.