Success Story

USAFA’s Evolving STEM Mission Promotes Involvement


The U.S. Air Force Academy's (USAFA) new K-12 STEM Outreach & Research Center is addressing the growing crisis in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce.

Colonel Neal Barlow, Chair of the Engineering Division at the Academy and Vice President for Education for the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), chairs the oversight panel for the Center. "The Academy has been a powerful STEM engine for America since it graduated its first class in 1959. We send over 400 STEM graduates annually into the military workforce, and most of those later attend grad school in STEM and have second careers as leaders in government, industry, and academia. Individual faculty members and departments have also been conducting exemplary grassroots STEM activities for decades." He and the USAFA leadership believe, however, that the Academy's role must evolve.

Dr. Billy Crisler, associate professor of aeronautics and recipient of the 2011 FLC Mid-Continent Region Outstanding STEM Mentorship Award, directs the Center and continued the story. "We've been a STEM consumer, taking the cream of each year's high school classes from around the nation. From the President on down, our chain of command has made it clear that STEM outreach is everybody's concern, and that means it's our concern. We must now become a STEM supplier."

Dr. Crisler believes the solution to our national STEM workforce and education crisis is a widespread network of local solutions. "Using grants from the National Defense Education Program, we leverage the Academy's STEM resources to benefit STEM education in southern Colorado. Our strategic vision goes beyond that, however. We want to integrate the efforts and goodwill of local governments, school boards, and nonprofit STEM providers with that of local industry and professional societies, then create a scalable, flexible model that other communities can exploit in defining their own local solutions."

Colonel Brent Richert, Chief Scientist at the USAFA, points to Plutarch's maxim, which is the motto for the Center: The mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled. "These words echo our quest to provide those singular Ôa-ha' moments of discovery, when a student moves from lack of awareness or disinterest, to being passionate about STEM and making informed life choices about careers in STEM," said Richert. "Once that fire is kindled in elementary school, it has to be sustained through middle and high school, and it has to be transitioned to a college experience."

The Center leverages the Academy's unique venue, and collaborates with other national and federal agencies to provide continuing education opportunities at the annual K-12 STEM Educator Summer Bootcamp. Colonel Mike Van Valkenburg, formerly Director, Science and Engineering Workforce Strategy at the Pentagon, now Department Head of Chemistry at USAFA and a member of the Center's oversight panel, finds that his experience at the Pentagon aligns with the Summer Bootcamp methodology. "An outreach effort, like Bootcamp, which targets K-12 teachers, is the most timely and cost-efficient method with the largest payoff to increasing the STEM student supply for our nation. More motivated and knowledgeable educators who are confident in STEM material are more likely to pass that excitement and confidence on to the classroom, made up of twenty-five or so possible future scientists and engineers. What a great multiplier!"

This popular, affordable, three-day workshop provides hands-on training in standards-based STEM programs for both classroom and after-school enrichment. Programs have featured SeaPerch remotely operated undersea vehicles, FIRST Robotics, and model rocketry. Previous collaborators include NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Navy, AIAA, and the National Institute of Aerospace. The Center continues to seek to engage other agencies that have a STEM outreach mission.

The Center also supports a wide variety of K-12 STEM outreach and sustainment activities orchestrated by faculty, including Cool Science workshops with Girl Scouts, Challenger Learning Center, teacher networks, tours of labs, and programs at the Academy Observatory. USAFA departments host more than 10,000 students in no-cost, hands-on STEM events annually. A newly established Cadet STEM Club helps cadets engage in STEM outreach at regional schools, and its members have volunteered to judge regional STEM events. And a newly established STEM Outreach Council supports and coordinates efforts by individual faculty and departments.

The STEM Outreach Center truly makes it possible for USAFA stakeholders, from the cadets to the faculty to partnership organizations in industry and government, to be involved and to accomplish the STEM mission.