SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. - How do you bring a U.S. Army engineer nearly to tears? Students at Grant School in Fairview Heights, Ill., know the answer.

In September, a handful of engineers and transportation experts assigned to Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command here - from the command's Transportation Engineering Agency - briefly set aside their work for another issue that's also important to the DoD and the nation ... education, specifically in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, for short.

The SDDC engineers and transportation experts volunteered their time to judge nearly 100 essays submitted by teachers, students and parents representing eight local-area schools.

"It was incredible to see how the judges responded to the student essays," said Andrea Green-Orr, a Defense Access Roads program office engineer and a Scott AFB STEM Advisory Group volunteer. "One judge said an essay he read almost brought him to tears. That shows the effort the students put into this project. It's exactly what I was hoping for."

The essays were submitted as part of the a STEM Essay Contest, sponsored by the Scott Air Force Base, Ill., STEM Advisory Group, and funded by the National Defense Education Program, or NDEP.

This year's STEM essay topic was, "How will a fun and exciting science show, like Mad Science St. Louis, inspire students at your school to study science, technology, engineering and math; or inspire students to pursue careers in these fields?"

And the winners are ...

The 2012 Scott STEM Essay Contest winners are: Evan Fitzgerald, Governor French Academy, Belleville, Ill.; Kenny Peterson, St. Joseph Catholic School, Freeburg, Ill.; Abby Mirly, Smithton Elementary School, Smithton, Ill.; Nicole Jones, Our Lady Queen of Peace, Belleville; Kaitlyn Danielson, Grant Middle School, Fairview Heights, Ill.; Charlotte Newbold, St. Agatha School, New Athens, Ill.; Rachel Dods, Triad Middle School, St. Jacob, Ill.; and Nathan Rivera, All Saints Academy, Breese, Ill.

Additionally, because of the significant contributions from Grant School, four students from that school (one from each fifth-grade class) were recognized during a special award presentation, Sept. 12. Grant School winners included Danielson, Paige Douglas, Stevenna Grinston, and Keith Kimbrow. Each student received a "STEM Super Star" medal, and Danielson, the school's overall winner, also received a certificate of recognition.

According to Green-Orr, Grant School received special recognition for "embracing the essay challenge" by integrating it into a class assignment for the entire fifth grade. She said Grant School alone submitted nearly 50 essays.

"The overwhelming response from those students and teachers was incredible," Green-Orr said. "They got it. They got what we were trying to do; to integrate this into their curriculum. It's catching on. It's showing that the goals and objectives that we set out are being accomplished. It's doing the job that we wanted it to do."

She was so moved by Grant School's efforts that she personally presented medals to the Grant School essay winners during a small ceremony there.

"I love the military tradition of presenting a medal for a job well done," she added. "The Army is very good at celebrating a Soldier's accomplishments to inspire them at every step. I wanted to do the same for these children. I wanted their faces to light up with excitement about their accomplishment."

National security

Green-Orr said she feels it's important to celebrate education as much as some other extracurricular activities are celebrated.

"My son is involved in sports, and when he excels at a sporting event, he receives a trophy, a medal or a ribbon. He has a wall full. He's also a member of the National Junior Honor Society and he's on the honor roll every quarter. There's some celebration around the academic accomplishments, but much less than in sports. Why not celebrate academic accomplishments in the same way? Maybe we'll get better results. Maybe we'll get more parents involved, and maybe we'll get the kids more excited about education. That's my mission."

She added that American citizens must become more aware of this issue.

"We do a super job providing opportunities for and encouraging excellence in sports and other extracurricular activities," she said. "For our national security and economic health, we need to apply the same or higher level of effort to encouraging students to become scientists and engineers."

Getting students, parents, teachers and the public inspired to engage in STEM discovery and innovation is also one of the goals of the Defense Department.

In a letter that accompanied the DoD's STEM Outreach Strategic Plan, Zachary Lemnios, the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, said STEM-literate citizenry is critical if the United States is to compete more effectively in the global marketplace.

"This plan is a vital first step in meeting our workforce needs and addressing our challenges and the nation's. It creates a new path forward shaped by a common vision and goals across the entire education continuum."

Listening to the children

Green-Orr added that the "creative and engaging" essays they received give a powerful voice to the importance of providing fun, hands-on STEM activities as part of our program.

"What we hear about kids today is that their brain cells are being wasted on video games and television. But, if you read these essays and listen to what these students have to say, you'll know that's just not the case. For example, Kaitlyn [the Grant School overall winner] demonstrated extraordinary insight as she was one of the only students to pick up on the fact that having a Mad Science Show at her school can not only inspire the children, but inspire the teachers, as well."

Although getting students fired up about math and science is certainly one of the STEM Advisory Group objectives, Green-Orr said the group also wants to let people know they're here to help.

"On the surface, this essay contest may look like we're just trying to have fun with the kids, but it's much more than that," she added. "We're inspiring the children, we're inspiring and informing the teachers, and we're making critical contacts for the future."

Community support

According to Green-Orr, the STEM Advisory Group provides behind-the-scenes support for many local organizations and activities to deliver hands-on learning experiences. For example, in October the group will support a Boy Scout Jamboree at Scott AFB, funding several science activities and supplying materials for hands-on activities in solar energy and polymer chemistry.

Other STEM initiatives supported by the group include the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Minds on Science Activities in the Community program; the Illinois Math and Science Academy Fusion Program; the O'Fallon, Ill., District 90/Chamber Career Day; providing speakers for SIUE teacher workshops; and much more.

Additionally, Green-Orr said she plans to host a STEM workshop during an upcoming YWCA Young Women's Leadership Conference, an annual event which reaches several hundred young women from throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area.

The supporting cast

The U.S. Transportation Command Office of Research and Technology Applications leads STEM efforts at Scott AFB, and funding for the program is provided by the DOD's National Defense Education Program. The U.S. TRANSCOM and the 375th Air Mobility Wing formed the Scott AFB STEM Advisory Group to advance STEM outreach and education in Southwestern Illinois. The group also includes volunteers from SDDC and Air Mobility Command.

"SDDC alone doesn't have the [resources] to send employees out to the community all the time," Green-Orr added. "But maybe once a year, [several] employees can judge an essay contest; and the next month, perhaps one or two of our employees can visit a local school to interact with students participating in the Mad Science presentation. And, when other Scott AFB organizations - like U.S. TRANSCOM, AMC and the 375th AMW - do the same, we're all working together to achieve a common goal.

"It's like the U.S. TRANSCOM motto says: 'Together - We Deliver.'"