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Posted 2/12/2018

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By Joe Macri
Middle East District

During the month of February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Middle East DISTRICT (TAM) supported three Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) events in the city of Winchester, Va., continuing a strong tradition of STEM outreach to the local community. 

Although the District supports events throughout the year, February is particularly important in promoting STEM because the third week in February is National Engineers Week. The three February events include MATHCOUNTS, a nationally recognized middle school math completion, a school science fair and a speaking engagement at STARBASE, a Department of Defense sponsored program aimed at promoting STEM at the elementary school level.

MATHCOUNTS, the first event, is an annual middle school math competition the District traditionally supports by providing proctors, scorers and guest speakers.  According to Gerald Hendricks, the local competition’s organizer, District volunteers were critical to making the event a success.

“I’d say approximately 80 percent of the volunteers came from the Corps of Engineers,” said Hendricks. “Without their support I don’t know if we would have even been able to hold this completion. It’s really great to see so many people donate their time on a Saturday to do this for these kids.”

In addition to providing volunteer judges, the District’s Commander Colonel Stephen Bales, was the guest speaker at the event. He expressed his appreciation for the students and told them how important STEM fields were to national security.

“If you do a quick Google search of STEM and national security, you’ll see there’s a real concern among people who think about this stuff for a living that we’re going to have a shortage of people who can use math and science to come up with solutions to some of the challenges our nation faces.  People who can build ships and planes. Design and improve infrastructure. Cure diseases,” he said.

Bales also told the students he was encouraged by their early interest.

Beyond MATHCOUNTS, the District also sent several judges to the Sacred Heart Academy Science Fair on 13 February, another STEM event TAM has supported for several years.  According the Julie Shoemaker, a public affairs specialist who runs the District’s STEM outreach and community relations programs, STEM has long been an area the District has worked hard to support.

“Because our mission is somewhat outside the norm for USACE districts with civil works projects, we often don’t have the visibility locally that other military organizations might. Although we occasionally do traditional community outreach, we’ve chosen to really focus our efforts on STEM outreach to local schools because it’s so central to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identity,” said Shoemaker. “Our Engineers and other technical experts really enjoy passing their love of all things STEM on to future generations.”

Shoemaker said that for most employees who participate in STEM events, the favorite is STARBASE. STARBASE is a classroom experience that takes middle school students out of their normal classroom environment and immerses them in STEM activities for a week. It’s funded by the Department of Defense with a full time teacher and hosts various guest speakers each session. The Middle East District and Transatlantic Division usually provide guest engineers a couple of times a quarter who facilitate a popsicle stick bridge building competition. “We’ve sent everyone from the Division Commander to our newest employees and they all enjoy the enthusiasm the children have for this event. Many of these kids might not get a STEM education beyond their normal classes. STARBASE really piques their interest and hopefully makes them want to pursue these subjects further,” said Shoemaker.

In additional to these events, the District supports several others throughout the year including organizing an annual “Day with an Engineer” event for area high school students from several local counties.