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Investing in Future Generations: SSP Receives Hands-On STEM Outreach Training at the US Naval Academy

06 December 2023

From Lt. Jennifer Bowman

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – U.S. Navy Strategic Systems Programs (SSP) employees had the opportunity to receive vital Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) outreach training at the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) Tuesday, November 28.
The workshop—facilitated by staff at the USNA’s STEM Center for Education and Outreach and sponsored by the DoD—provided tactics, resources, and tools for Navy STEM representatives to engage children outside of the traditional classroom setting. The day included hands-on learning activities and demonstrations by USNA STEM Center staff to connect educators to curriculum as well as develop a sense of community among attendees.

Attracting top engineering and technical talent is key to sustaining and driving SSP’s critical sea-based strategic deterrence mission. Throughout Fiscal Year 24, SSP anticipates an increase of more than 18 percent in its STEM professional community. In order to meet this growth and workforce sustainment goal, SSP’s Human Resources Division plans to bolster recruitment efforts within STEM fields.

“Investment in STEM is an investment in our children, in our workforce, and in our future,” Caren Spahr said as she reflected on the workshop. Spahr is the co-lead for STEM outreach at SSP’s field site Strategic Weapons Facility, Atlantic (SWFLANT) in Kings Bay, Georgia.

Steering STEM initiatives is a collateral duty for Spahr, the continuous process improvement coordinator for SWFLANT. Augmenting the site’s STEM program, she explains, may add to her daily work but serves as a relief to teachers in the surrounding counties who don’t have the bandwidth or resources to include STEM activities in their classrooms. Spahr has a unique opportunity to represent the Navy, SWFLANT, and its mission to future generations of STEM professionals in the local community.

SWFLANT supports 35 schools across three counties. Spahr is the STEM Coordinator for the 15 schools in Camden County and a mentor for Camden Middle School's FABLAB. Spahr ensures SWFLANT mentors are assigned to robotics teams and maintains an open dialogue with county schools to ensure educators have opportunities to request and receive STEM materials. School mentors oversee and assist approximately 20 students in their STEM learning activities monthly.

“When a command can send people with materials and an activity that helps to support and enhance teaching objectives, it helps the teachers teach and it helps the students learn,” Spahr continued, “[but] it also educates the teachers and students on careers in the military and government.”

Not only are the students doing hands-on activities that provide a real-world application to what they are learning, those providing the training also make vital connections with the community.

“STEM engagement sparks curiosity,” Spahr said. “It [STEM] also helps develop our current workforce by enhancing leadership, facilitation, and public speaking skills—and also curates a sense of community.”

Nearly 200 miles south of Kings Bay is Leslie Amodeo, STEM lead at SSP’s field site Naval Ordnance Test Unit (NOTU) in Cape Canaveral, Florida, who traveled to Annapolis for the workshop.
“The experience really was invaluable,” Amodeo said. “I was able to see, firsthand, best practices for STEM learning demonstrations we were already planning at NOTU, and learn how to better communicate learning objectives while keeping the kids engaged in the activity.”

Amodeo, the Associate Chief Engineer at NOTU, takes pride in the work she is doing to educate future generations in STEM fields. As co-lead for NOTU’s STEM outreach, Amodeo is responsible for coordinating activities that reach four schools in Brevard County, Florida. She noted how vital it is that NOTU’s outreach program is designed to reach all communities within Brevard, especially schools in underserved communities.

“NOTU’s program actively engages with Title 1 teachers and schools,” she explained. “Bringing STEM activities to kids in these communities is pivotal because it provides them education they can use in future classes and take-home material that drives interest and keeps them engaged.”

STEM initiatives have a vital impact on the future of our Nation’s ability to pace with competitors—like China—who are heavily resourcing and prioritizing STEM education. Naval STEM programs are deliberate investments in the current and future DoN workforce, which enhance the Navy and Marine Corps’ ability to meet present and future war-fighting challenges.

“In 2017 there were 2.4 million positions in the US workforce that went unfilled because there were not enough people with STEM degrees to fill them,” USNA STEM Center Director Joseph McGettigan told workshop attendees. “It is expected that in 2027 that number will increase by ten percent.”

The USNA STEM Center is primarily geared toward addressing the urgent national need for future generations to pursue careers in STEM. USNA faculty and midshipmen provide STEM outreach to local and national communities to help engage and influence students and to bolster curriculums nationwide.

A retired U.S. Navy Captain, McGettigan highlighted the criticality of changing the narrative about STEM—one that today’s youth often sees as too hard or only for the smartest of students—in order to keep the United States a global leader in technology.

“One of the ways to [change the narrative] is for today's youth to have role models from the STEM community to show them that STEM is fun and not as difficult as they may have thought,” he said.

Based at SSP headquarters in Washington, D.C., STEM Federal Action Officer Dr. Greg Bouton spearheads the command’s STEM education efforts, nationally, and in the Northern Virginia locale.

In D.C. at SSP HQ, STEM outreach volunteers support one school and one not-for-profit STEM outreach organization for k-12 students. Combined with five of its field activities across the U.S., overall SSP supports nearly 60 schools with volunteers, resources and tools for STEM outreach. Dr. Bouton says this type of grassroots effort is how the organization develops and cultivates interest in STEM for future generations, but it’s also a matter of national security.

“STEM outreach is key to future proofing the United States' ability to maintain a strategic advantage over our foreign advisories,” he explained.

“Moreover, it is vital for our volunteers from headquarters and the field activities to go out into their local communities to show the importance of what we do through STEM activities,” he continued, “that will encourage interest in fields of study that help grow and sustain missions like ours at SSP.”

Bouton lauded USNA STEM outreach training and staff for the ability to connect STEM mentors and professionals across the Navy. He also shared how this type of resource can affect the future for an organization like SSP.

“Our volunteers learn how to engage with the public in a meaningful way—moreover—STEM outreach is absolutely essential for succession planning and sustainability on a grand scale.”

Strategic Systems Programs is the Navy command that provides cradle-to-grave lifecycle support for the sea-based leg of the nation’s nuclear triad. This includes training, systems, equipment, facilities and personnel responsible for ensuring the safety, security, and effectiveness of the nation’s Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) Trident II (D5LE) Strategic Weapon System. SLBMs make up the majority – approximately 70 percent – of the U.S.’s deployed strategic nuclear deterrent Triad. The SLBM is the most survivable leg of the triad, provides persistent presence, and allows flexible concept of operations.

Caren Spahr and Leslie Amodeo contributed to this article.

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