WEST POINT, N.Y. (June 1, 2011) -- Nearly 100 middle school students from across the country participated in a three-day Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program from May 24-27 hosted by the West Point Center for STEM Education through the Civil and Mechanical Engineering Department.

The program allows selected children from disadvantaged school systems who have an interest and a proven aptitude in math and science to come to West Point for a hands-on education in the science and math fields.

“The West Point admissions department identifies schools in disadvantaged areas and checks with principals and teachers,” Catherine Bale, director of outreach for the Center of STEM Education, CME, said. “They ask them to choose the best students in the math and science subjects. The students are guests of West Point and we provide transportation (with the exception of local children) and they stay in the barracks.”

The Center for STEM Education’s main objective is to design and implement programs that inspire, attract and develop the STEM talent beginning with children from middle and high schools. If the 21st century is any indication, math and science will continue to play a dominant role in all aspects of everyday life.

If educators can instill interest and educate children in math and sciences, it will undoubtedly have a positive impact for the nation’s current and future challenges, such as the environment and medicine.

Professors, instructors and technicians volunteered to teach and cadets, who are engineering majors, became mentors. Instructors teach basic physics, math, chemistry and aerodynamics by actually working with the students and allowing them to do experiments on their own.

“We use the same approach as we do with cadets,” Maj. Craig Ruzicki, chemistry instructor, said.
“We have a much more interactive approach than in most colleges. It’s important to have a “hands-on” approach, especially with chemistry when students can make things happen with their own hands. It sticks with you more when you can see what happens.”

The West Point STEM program began in 2009 to address the need to develop interest in math and sciences. The United States lags behind many other countries in these disciplines, which prompted the Army to develop the Army Educational Outreach Program, which is designed to engage and guide students and teachers in STEM from elementary school through graduate school.

The AEOP involves events that include school visits, neighborhood activities and community science fairs, according to its website, www.usaeop.com. Instructors, technology experts and cadets act as mentors and guides, introduce students to various levels of research and engineering and provide advice on career opportunities and training.

The West Point STEM children learned about air pressure and how it can be used in hover crafts through a demonstration by George Geysen, physical science technician.

They listened to the theory behind air pressure and then participated by getting on the hover craft and actually experiencing what it feels like, floating a few inches above ground.

“Do you have directions on how I can make one of these,” asked Maya Cothran from Spartanburg, S.C.

Geysen explained that the Internet was the best place to get step by step directions for making a hover craft.

“All you really need is some wood, a blower, plastic sheeting and duct tape,” Geysen said.

In a chemistry experiment, the future scientists learned how to make nylon and gak, a substance that is chalky and solid in some places and runny and gooey in others and basically made with cornstarch and water.

Although cadets don’t teach, they provide fun and mentorship to the students.

“We basically teach them about West Point,” Class of 2012 Cadet Beverly Nordin said. “We also facilitate, let them know how to behave and what to expect. Plus they have fun"we teach them how to salute and they started to salute everyone.”

Class of 2012 Cadet Lawrence Collins said the children were inquisitive about life at West Point, with student asking if they had televisions in their rooms.

“We have to lead with a soft hand,” Collins said. “We are not allowed to yell at them and it’s a challenge trying to get them settled, but it’s a lot of fun. We taught them cadence and whenever we go from one event to another, they always ask what song are we going to sing.”