ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Networking and potential employment opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions are available at the Black Engineer of the Year Award STEM Global Competitiveness Conference taking place this weekend in Washington, D.C.

The BEYA conference gathers representatives from STEM education and professions to celebrate and promote academic and professional achievement. BEYA strengthens the foundation of America's STEM workforce through involvement from K-12 and higher education, government and corporate STEM employers.

Nolan Smith, a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, understands how important the conference can be for someone graduating in a STEM field of study.

"BEYA changed my life," Smith proclaimed.

Smith was a senior studying civil engineering on a presidential scholarship at Florida A&M University when he attended BEYA in 2010 in Baltimore. That is where he was first introduced to RDECOM as he was searching for job opportunities.

"I took a bus from my school to BEYA not knowing what to expect. I just knew I wanted to get a job. I saw the RDECOM sign and I walked up, introduced myself to the director and the rest is history," Smith said.

Smith interviewed with RDECOM. He was eventually offered, and accepted, a job with RDECOM at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Upon his arrival at APG, Smith had an awakening to the substantial civilian workforce that he was now a part of.

"I realize that the Army is so much more than combat. There is so much research and development, which I think is a big issue right now," he said.

"We unburden, protect and empower the Warfighter. We provide the materials for Soldiers to execute their tasks and we get to interact directly with them. We get a personal identity for the whole mission."

Smith knew from an early age he would grow up to be an engineer and credits his family for sparking his interest.

"My grandma told me I was going to be an engineer. My father was an architect and my mom was an interior designer. You put together an architect and an interior designer and you get the mindset of an engineer," Smith said.

While at Florida A&M, Smith studied mechanical and environmental engineering before finding his passion with civil engineering.

"I was always good with my hands and once I got so far into engineering in school, I really started to develop my craft and have an appreciation for it. I consider myself a well-rounded engineer," he said.

With the economy still struggling and significant budget constraints affecting defense programs and contractors, there are fewer jobs available and many organizations still aren't hiring. Smith stresses, however, that this should not deter people from attending the BEYA STEM Conference.

"I encourage students to go. You get a chance to see the product itself. You can see the companies putting effort into finding minority candidates," he said. "Even if you aren't a senior, I encourage you to go so you know what to expect and you can make contacts. They encourage you to keep in touch."

The BEYA STEM Conference is from Feb. 17-19 at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C. For more information, or to register for the conference, go to BEYA's website at www.beya.org.