New STEM program designed to inspire the next generation underway at AEDC

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The next generation of engineers and scientists has just started their educational journey.

Today they are solving multiplication and division problems and learning basic scientific principles, but one day they will be the designers of the next generation of flight vehicles or weapon systems. They will be the ones who colonize the moon, make supersonic travel common and connect our world in ways we have not yet imagined.

A new initiative at Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) is striving to expose students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics and get them excited and thinking about a future in this critical field.

"Our ultimate goal is to inspire the next generation," said AEDC Commander Col. Michael T. Panarisi. "We are living on the accomplishments of an entire generation who was inspired by the space race. The next quantum leap in aerospace will come from the minds of the children we are targeting right now." Unfortunately, even as early as elementary school, students are balancing class work, sports, church activities, the latest video games and television shows, as well as everything on the Web. It's much harder now to get them excited about their future careers and commit to the work it will take to succeed in 15 or 20 years.

"There is so much competing for children's time and attention now," the colonel said. "We really want to get into that line and give these children the opportunity to explore what Tennessee calls STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We are looking for an entry as early as possible. We know it takes a lifetime of learning to be a 'game changer' in any field. When you think about it, it's a pretty tall order to build a pro baseball player if they pick up the bat for the first time in eighth grade. It's the same problem in technical fields. We have a perfect environment here where we can show them the results of that lifetime of learning."

Colonel Panarisi's passion for education is rooted in his belief that it is literally an issue of national defense.

"From national asset and test perspective, we need a large pool of excited, interested, inspired engineers, mathematicians and scientists to sustain the capability we have here. But this is way bigger than AEDC. Not only do we need that population to grow locally; this is a need across the nation, the defense industry and our commercial enterprises."

When he was about seven years old, Colonel Panarisi said he remembered watching a television show about an astronaut who was severely injured and required technology to put him back together.

"It was 1972, and I was sitting at home watching The Six Million Dollar Man," he said. "The whole story behind the science and technology it took to rebuild 'Steve Austin' just fascinated me. Of course, he was an astronaut on that show and getting into science and technology and the desire to be an astronaut was planted at the same time. But while I was in second grade, I didn't know it at the time, all the hard work I did in school was traceable back to the decision to pursue a dream in the technical fields. It's that inspiration, that decision, we are attempting to recreate with our STEM efforts. I was inspired at a very early age, so I know it can be done."

For eighth grade students, AEDC teamed with the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI) to develop a program called Minds in Motion. Students' time is divided between AEDC and UTSI. The students tour facilities and participate in hands-on demonstrations that represent the work done at each location.

"Minds in Motion is fantastic," Colonel Panarisi said. "The big value of that is we get all of the local schools involved; it is a very wide effort. It is an eighth grade program, so I would classify it in the 'sustain' category. It's easy to see, even in that group, those who are interested, and those who were just attending a field trip. We saw firsthand that these activities made the teachers' day. So much of what they were trying to accomplish in the classroom just wasn't possible without that extra spark, and Minds in Motion set that spark ablaze. We saw that spark in a handful of their students. We know we can't reach all the students. But we want keep the fire burning for those who are inclined to pursue and overcome technical challenges."
Creating a "spark" summarizes the colonel's vision for creating a "game changing" educational outreach program. Realizing that by middle school, most students aren't easily impressed, the challenge became reaching younger students. Taking on elementary school students is something new for AEDC.

One of the more difficult challenges was trying to take something like aerodynamics or jet propulsion and break it down so that it is easily understood by someone who is eight years old.

"Even at that young age, they [elementary students] are very easily fascinated, and the magnitude of what we do here, the scale of the machines, the complexity of the whole base, really leaves them with the 'wow' factor," he said. "They are so impressionable at this age, and it's so easy to get them excited when they see something that is larger than life or bigger than they dreamed. The key to inspiring this age group is showing them something they may never have imagined. When they see it for themselves and say, 'Wow, this is what I can be a part of,' you start that ball rolling. By the time they are in seventh or eighth grade, they have seen so many things, it won't be as exciting. For some it will look almost ordinary. We want to hit them before they have 'seen it all' and show them something beyond extraordinary."

The elementary school program, which has been aptly named "Spark," brings students to the center for a hands-on demonstration and teaches them an aspect of flight tied directly to the work done at AEDC. Then the students tour a couple of the facilities to see the size and magnitude of the infrastructure, all on a level that they easily understand. The focus on elementary and middle school students is by design. Simply put, by the time students are in high school, they have made up their mind as to what their career path is going to look like, the colonel said.

"These students may not have decided on a profession, but the study habits, the interests, the desires are relatively well set," he said. "So in a high school setting, the mission would be to sustain momentum in someone who has made that choice. But, for the long-term success of the program, our initial efforts have to plant new seeds."

Bringing students to AEDC is only part of the colonel's vision for Spark. Thanks to social media platforms and Web-based video capabilities, AEDC's scientists and engineers can bring these demonstrations to a classroom anywhere.

"We got a great tip from one of our local educators asking us to look at creating a Web-based or media-based capability, where a classroom could literally log in at a specified time and either view a prepared presentation or have somebody on the other end of a webcam. The concept centers on using technology to participate in a classroom for five or 10 minutes and kick off the lesson that way," he said. "This is a fantastic idea, and we can reach a lot more people with a much smaller commitment on our end. Many of today's classrooms are already connected in this way."

In fact, beginning next fall, AEDC will be teaming with a technology studies class at Fairview High School in Williamson County. The class gives the students an overview of what technology is and how we use it in the fields of transportation, construction, information communication, structural engineering and systems. Usingsocial media, AEDC engineers will be able to lecture or address questions asked by the students and reinforce the curriculum already being taught.

"Some classrooms start their day with a webcam feed from another country," he said. "We could start the class with a webcam feed from here. 'Good morning, we're here at Arnold and this is what we're doing today.' It would really be a big 'bang-for-the-buck' kind of approach where somebody here would have to dedicate only 10 or 15 minutes. That's less time than it takes to get to the schools. I'm really excited about this approach, so we have to put our heads together and consider how we could take on part of that."

Success in this effort will take a team effort between the schools and AEDC. A partnership between teachers, administrators and AEDC provides not only a network of mutual support, but also reinforces a common goal of ensuring that students are exposed to all aspects of STEM.

"I really want the educators in the area to know we are here and that we are a resource they can leverage as they build their curriculum. We want to be a part of their classrooms and help them provide the spark in their students," Colonel Panarisi said. "This is a mission we can take on; it's a mission that is valuable to the whole country. The people here accomplished great things because someone inspired them when they were younger. Now it's our turn to pass the torch. We're looking for the hands to give it to."