Even with the door wide-open, you're surrounded by complete darkness. The pitch-black, unfamiliarity is frightening, but those who braved the darkness have come up with several ways to see - image intensification, thermal signatures, etc. These innovative approaches illuminate the darkness for our Soldiers. This work and much more is being done by the Research, Development and Engineering Command to provide our men and women in uniform new perspectives and leading-edge capabilities for mission success.

I was struck by the need for different perspectives in R&D as I watched students pass in and out of RDECOM's night vision technology demonstration bunker at Morgan State University's 2010 Maryland Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in Baltimore, a DoD-sponsored high-school science fair. I believe the light-tight bunker to be a fitting analogy for the challenges and opportunities for budding technologists who seek science, technology, engineering and mathematics as a career choice. "Step into the darkness," in essence, is the message we're saying to them. "Come and see new ways to enable the safe return and successful execution of our nation's forces." Like the bunker, students step into the darkness from all socio-economic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They bring with them an accumulation of education honed into their own unique perspectives -- their own ways of "seeing."

I am reminded of this as I sit in MSU's Hill Field House, the site of the JSHS exhibit hall, listening to a DJ blast the latest in hip hop and popular music. I'm surrounded by students from 8th grade and beyond who visit robotics, fuel cells and complex gas mask technology demonstrations. I've just spoken with a flamboyant, "blinged out" college junior in the electronics engineering program, who boasted of his high GPA and eagerness to work as an Army civilian engineer. His boldness about stepping into the darkness was unmistakable. His confidence was clear as he narrowed his brow to stress the focus of his studies. After he finished, he shook my hand with a "three-clutch combination" ending with a snap of the fingers, and returned to the dance floor on the other side of the gym.

The whole experience stood out for me as something significant as we consider the future of our nation's STEM workforce, and what I see as the untraditional means we must take to "reach our youth where they are." One thing's for sure -- in the dark, we don't know what we can't see, and our young folks bring perspectives locked up in them that are bound to look where we never have. I think that we too must continue to step into the darkness and look with a deeper perception to find them.