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U.S. Navy’s SSP Empowers Students with STEM Learning Activities at Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Expo

09 April 2024

From Lt. Jennifer Bowman

OXON HILL, Md. – The U.S. Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs (SSP) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) team gave visiting students hands-on opportunities to connect STEM activities to real-world Navy missions during the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space STEM Expo, Sunday.
This year’s Expo placed sharp focus on the theme of Integrated Maritime Power—in other words, how the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard leverage complementary authorities and capabilities across warfare domains to advance the prosperity, security, and promise of a free and open, rules-based global order.

“The Sea-Air-Space Expo is an excellent opportunity for students to see STEM in action by seeing how many of the principles they learn are applied to Navy products,” said Dr. Greg Bouton, who leads SSP’s STEM education efforts, guiding programs at headquarters and around the nation.

“Being represented at the STEM expo gives SSP a unique platform to market and brand the organization as an exciting place to work with a meaningful and very important mission.”

Volunteers from SSP—the Navy command that owns the cradle-to-grave responsibility for the submarine-launched ballistic missile system—had three demonstration stations available for expo attendees. Students were able to build and launch rockets using straws, clay, and index cards; inflate balloons and attach them to 3D printed rockets to watch them fly; and build structures using toothpicks, spaghetti noodles, and marshmallows. These learning activities represent baseline engineering competencies like building structurally sound shapes or understanding how various elements—like adding fins—can affect a rocket’s time and distance traveled.

Testing these fundamentals relates to the real-world deterrence mission SSP serves—a mission that ties directly to the CNO’s “America’s Warfighting Navy” guidance and contributes to the Navy’s ability to “preserve the peace, respond in crisis, and—if necessary—win decisively in war.” SSP oversees all aspects of research, development, production, logistics, storage, repair, and operational support of the Strategic Weapons System (SWS) for Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). The submarine launched ballistic missile capability represents 70% of the nation’s nuclear triad.

SSP’s presence at the Expo is a multipurpose benefit for the command. Representation at an expo like Sea-Air-Space not only supports public buy-in and understanding of the mission, it also provides a unique venue to attract the right talent to enable the mission. During a recent television interview, SSP’s Director Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, Jr also highlighted the command’s need for more “players on the field” at SSP.
“What we really need today is, we need a very talented workforce that understands the mission— that is all in,” said Vice Adm. Wolfe.

Part of SSP’s no-fail mission is not only to deliver capabilities for the strategic deterrence mission at speed and on target but to equip its people with the right skills, tools, training, and mindset to innovate and carry sea-based strategic deterrence through 2084.

“Because SSP must continue sustainment efforts and develop future technology for the weapons system, it is paramount that we actively execute strategies and tactics to sustain our succession plan as we grow, evolve, and expand our scope to meet current and future developmental needs,” explained Dr. Bouton.

Nationwide, SSP’s STEM outreach program focuses on local community efforts to generate early interest in the field for students of all ages. SSP’s outreach into the local community has resulted in strong partnerships to provide vital STEM education for students.

“SSP’s leadership understands the importance of a strong STEM pipeline to ensure the longevity of the organizations future,” said Nicolas Tarver, SSP’s headquarters STEM Team lead.
“It’s important to have an active presence so that SSP will become more commonly recognized amongst the STEM community, and hopefully attract some of its best talent.”

For the expo, SSP collaborated with The Future Innovative Rising Engineer (FIRE) STEM Rocket Challenge organization, founded by Ms. Robin Houston, to provide one of the STEM activities during the expo. Houston’s exhibit provided students the opportunity to build miniature rockets, add features like fins to the pencil-sized models, and then launch them to test how mechanics, features, and angle of launch affect trajectory.
Houston launched the FIRE Rocket Challenge program in 2021 to mentor youth from grades 5-12. Her program is tailor-made to reach diverse youth in underrepresented and under-resourced groups to encourage them to pursue careers in a STEM field.

“Many youths from diverse backgrounds face barriers to participation in high-quality STEM programs for reasons such as program costs/fees; locations, days, and times the programs are offered; lack of role models they can connect with; and knowledge that programs exist,” Houston said.
“The Fire Rocket Challenge program breaks down these barriers by providing mentors and coaches who look like the students they support.”

She stressed the importance of continued support from businesses and organizations that match her program’s dedication to grow diverse talent. Last year, she connected with Tarver at an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics networking event and said collaboration with SSP—including funding support—has been monumental for her program.

Houston pointed out organizations like FIRE and SSP alike rely on engagement with each other’s missions as the vehicles for casting vision and expectation in young people—and an event like Sea-Air-Space brings that vision to life.

“Because we are a 100% volunteer organization without a consistent income stream, partnering with organizations like SSP that can provide financial support is critical to our ability to provide quality experiences to youth from families that do not have a lot of discretionary funds left at the end of the month,” said Houston.

“These types of alliances allow us to be the boots on the ground to get the job done.”

Houston emphasized that immersive experiences for students and connection to people working in the industry are all important ways to help unlock the potential these students may not have realized.

“Exposure is the key to dreaming big!” 
A special thanks to Ms. Robin Houston (FIRE Rocket Challenge, Straw Rocket Launcher activity); Oscar Wiygul (3D printed balloon rocket activity); Adam Allex (setup and event support); Marvin Turner (setup and event support); Dr. Greg Bouton (SPHQ STEM Outreach education lead) and his daughters (setup, SSP display, marshmallow/toothpick building station); Kathleen Cushman (SSP memorabilia); and Nick Tarver (SPHQ STEM Outreach lead) for making SSP’s participation in the Sea-Air-Space STEM Expo a reality!

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