Kangas hopes STEM outreach buds greater interest among area students

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks

Heather Kangas has made it her mission to take science, technology, engineering and math - otherwise known as STEM - beyond photos, charts and text and bring it to life for children living in close vicinity to Holloman Air Force Base.

 “I think it’s important just because not everybody’s been exposed to it,” she said. “Kids get science in school, but to see science in action or to see engineering in action, to bring those experiences to the kids, to engage them and just excite them, to let them know that there are options for your future, just getting them out there and seeing STEM in action, I think, is important.”

Kangas has served as the 704th Test Group K-12 STEM Outreach coordinator for the last three years. The 704th at Holloman AFB is a unit of the Arnold Engineering Development Complex, headquartered at Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee.

In her role, Kangas visits classrooms throughout the Alamogordo Public Schools system to introduce thousands of elementary, middle and high school students each year to STEM concepts and guides them through projects they complete themselves.

Kangas said part of her twofold objective is to advance STEM involvement among the students.

“I think it’s especially important where we live,” she said. “We have a large minority population. We have a lot of females that it’d be great to target for STEM-type jobs. Women are typically underrepresented in the STEM fields, which makes it particularly important to spark their interest at an early age, typically before they reach middle school. That’s why I like to do a lot with the elementary students and show them STEM is fun, we can be hands-on, and everyone can do it.”

Secondly, Kangas wishes to show the youngsters the important role STEM plays at Holloman and introduce them to future career opportunities available not only to Airmen, but to contractors and civilians.

“My goal is to get kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math and then for them to recognize the opportunities that there are out here on this base,” Kangas said. “We bring kids out for field trips to the Holloman High Speed Test Track where they are introduced to a variety of dynamic, high-speed test capabilities such as ejection seats, hypersonic weapons, etc. In addition, at our guidance and navigation squadron, we introduce them to various GPS and inertial technology through fun hands-on exercises, like geocaching and other projects. We take them and tour them around and show them the opportunities that are available here, especially for future jobs, and let them know joining the Air Force is one option, but that’s not the only option.”

Kangas’ interest in STEM education was spurred when her oldest daughter, in middle school at the time, began taking part in a FIRST® LEGO® League, or FLL. FLL teams research a real-world problem and are then challenged to develop a solution and present their results. The teams are tasked with using LEGO kits to help demonstrate their proposed solutions, and their designs are showcased at competitions.

Seeing how much this STEM-centric program had benefited her daughter, Kangas went to the school of her younger children to see if it could be implemented there.

“The principal looked at me and said, ‘That’s great, Heather. You’re going to run it,’” Kangas said.

Kangas, whose active-duty husband has been stationed at Holloman for the past 11 years, jumped at the chance and, through heading the program, she soon discovered an affinity for working with children and education. This led to her enrolling in New Mexico State University to pursue a degree in Early Childhood Education.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, Kangas began work as a teacher in the Alamogordo Public Schools system while still leading the elementary school FLL. It was while working to bring other adults into this program she learned that the STEM coordinator position at Holloman would soon be open.

“I was training new coaches for the FLL and I jokingly said, ‘If I could do STEM education all day, every day, I would,’ not realizing that the current person holding this position was in my classroom,” Kangas said. “She raised her hand and said, ‘You want my job.’”

Although initially said in jest, as it turned out, the Holloman STEM position was opening. Kangas applied and was subsequently selected for the position. To aid her in her new post, Kangas earned a master’s degree in educational learning technologies.

Kangas’ existing relationship with Alamogordo Public Schools (APS) aided her in her efforts to reach area students.

“Having worked with APS, it was really easy to be able to get into the classrooms and do STEM educational outreach because they were comfortable with me, they were familiar with my teaching style and methodology,” Kangas said. “So it’s been a really good transition from working with them as an educator to coming back as the STEM coordinator, teaching, leading and mentoring not just the students but also the classroom teachers.”

Each year, Kangas works to develop a variety of grade level-appropriate lessons aimed at providing students hands-on STEM experiences. These have ranged from tutorials on making straw rockets and magnetic slime to lessons on circuitry that culminate with the students using copper tape, a battery and LED bulb to make their own light. Other lessons have included younger students being led through the construction of catapults using craft sticks and the programming of Sphero robots by middle schools students to high school students being shown the Holloman High Speed Test Track and creating CO2 cars to learn some of the scientific concepts behind a HHSTT sled launch.

Students are also invited to participate in grade level-appropriate FLL programs. This past year, lessons were also made available to area preschoolers.

Recently, high school welding students have participated in STEM lessons, learning about the process of assembling sleds for the Holloman High Speed Test Track.

Along with her in-classroom work, Kangas attends community happenings near Holloman, such as fairs and Earth Day events, to spread STEM awareness.

Kangas said another important component of her job is “teaching the teachers.” This includes providing them with overviews of the STEM lesson kits in advance and providing educators with access to a “lending library,” which provides them access to STEM items such as robotics and 3D printers for hands-on lessons in their classrooms.

“I can only see so many children and classrooms, but the teachers see thousands of people throughout their lifetime, so another major goal is to train the teachers with these tools and these resources so they can share that knowledge with students throughout their career,” Kangas said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Kangas’ efforts as restrictions have prohibited Kangas from entering classrooms. In the 2019 fiscal year, she reached nearly 7,500 students. In the 2020 fiscal year, the STEM program reached just under 2,400 students. Still, she was able to reach students through STEM summer camps in which parents picked up kits and Kangas joined students virtually to help them complete projects. A similar approach was taken throughout the past year with STEM lessons in area schools. Kangas provided kits to teachers, who were leading virtual classes, and Kangas joined the students online to walk them through projects and provide troubleshooting.

“It’s definitely been a pretty big shift from what I’m used to,” she said.

However, this hasn’t stopped Kangas from planning for the future. This year, she wants to bring small CO2 cars into middle school classrooms to educate students on the science and engineering behind them and how it relates to the Holloman High Speed Test Track. This project would also culminate with the students launching the cars.

Kangas would also like to involve additional organizations at Holloman in her STEM outreach efforts to bolster STEM awareness among area students and expose them to additional opportunities at the base.

“We also have other wonderful, wonderful squadrons here, so I’m hoping to start working with them and developing grade-level programs that highlight each squadron’s diverse capabilities and roles in the STEM fields,” she said.