Donna Bulger wanted the students to remember one word.
“This is the U.S. Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. I know it’s a long name, but the most important word here is Soldier,” said Bulger, NSRDEC workforce development manager. “Everything we do here is to support the Soldier.”
That is how Bulger greeted the 65 students assembled May 16 in Hunter Auditorium from Franklin (Mass.) High School and Franklin’s Horace Mann Middle School. About 40 high school students and 25 middle school students, accompanied by nine chaperones, divided into small groups to tour facilities on the installation.
At each destination, an expert walked them through the lab, explained the basics of his or her job, answered questions, and provided a demonstration. Middle school children visited the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Lab, Sensory Lab, and Prototype Shop while high school students saw the Thermal Test Facility, Doriot Climatic Chambers, and Fiber Facility.
The middle school kids really enjoyed the science experiments; one seventh grade student in particular was amazed by the MREs: “We had three-year-old cake! But it tasted the same as the other fresh cakes!” A fellow student commented: “The food stuff was really cool. I had never thought of doing this kind of job, but this visit definitely sparked my interest.”
That’s what STEM visits are designed to do. Students are afforded the opportunity to glimpse what they could do in the future should they choose to pursue degrees in science, mathematics, education or technology. Students became scientists when they experimented here, while at the STEM Lab, students created mini bottle rockets, tested fabrics that repelled water, made silly putty, and performed chromatography tests.
In the Sensory Lab, students thought like scientists as they smelled and tasted different foods to determine the differences and similarities between the cakes they tested. In the Prototype Shop, students saw how preliminary designs went through step-by-step processes that led to the creation of prototypes for body armor and parachute links.
With optimism and excitement, these bright-eyed students recounted their tour around the base. The future looks even brighter, if their retention and capacity to learn continue to grow.
High school students saw a greater amount of science and technology at work in the production of what a Soldier requires. The Thermal Test Facility captured the attention of high school students the morning of their visit. After looking at the preliminary testing equipment and data used to study the flame-retardant materials, they witnessed a four-second full garment burnout test on a mannequin and were all audibly awestruck.
While in the Fiber Facility, they observed the fibers that make the materials and realized the importance of small-scale production for not only the Army but for major corporations that rely on NSRDEC. In the chambers, students were blown away by 20 mph winds and then listened to stories, some humorous, about the different types of tests that occur in the two chambers, which involve varying extreme temperatures for Soldiers and their equipment.
“Everything that a Soldier wears, carries, or eats starts here,” said Sarah Ross of the Human Research Volunteer Program. “That’s why this is such a cool place to work.”