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STEM conference highlights need for early education

The Air Force held its first Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics conference and awards ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 23, 2009. (U.S. Air Force illustration)

The Air Force held its first Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics conference and awards ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 23, 2009. (U.S. Air Force illustration)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Experts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics career fields came to the Air Force Academy to discuss how to make the United States more competitive in these fields during the first Air Force STEM Conference here Sept. 23. 

Discussion focused on how to get people interested in technical career fields earlier in their education and how to capitalize on the expertise already present within the Air Force. 

Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould kicked off the conference in the Arnold Hall Ballroom. 

"Bringing this group to this Academy will really bolster our efforts to develop STEM (expertise)," General Gould said. "There's no question that we require a tech-savvy force." 

Cadets graduate from the Academy with a minimum of 45 semester hours in technical-intense courses and a bachelor of science degree. Many more go beyond that minimum requirement and even attend graduate school for technical fields, General Gould said. 

Zachary Lemnios, the director of Defense Research and Engineering, asked the group of about 200 attendees to think about what capabilities the Department of Defense will need in the next five to 10 years. 

"The subjects you're working on now will be the starting point for topics we're talking about in the years to come," said Mr. Lemnios, who was previously the chief technology officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory and also served as the director of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's Microsystems Technology Office. "What are our technical innovations, how are those turned into capabilities, and how do we use those capabilities to meet the emerging threat? What are the core competencies that the DOD needs to achieve its mission, and what technologies do we need to achieve those capabilities?" 

Mr. Lemnios highlighted some emerging technologies, such as persistent observation capabilities that unmanned aerial systems currently provide, building systems that can predict the outcome of actions in urban terrain, and a better overall understanding of social landscapes. 

"We'll be making big bets on people a few years from now," he said. "We're looking for that one researcher who has an idea that can change the nature of an entire field of study -- it's important to understand the impact of the individual researcher." 

However, in order to develop researchers who can contribute to national defense, the United States has to have high school and college graduates who are both interested and proficient in technical fields, Mr. Lemnios said. 

"If we don't get this right, we will miss the entire workforce 10 to 15 years from now," he explained. "In El Paso County, 80 percent of students graduate in four years. Half of the students in the District of Columbia don't graduate from high school in four years." The national average for on-time graduation is 76 percent. "If we're not getting the front-end piece right, we're not going to see that back-end piece come to fruition. 

"China is graduating more than 400,000 engineering students per year. Numbers matter: it's a few researchers among those 400,000 who will make huge changes in research," Mr. Lemnios said. "We're being outpaced at an enormous scale, so what do we do?" 

Natalie Crawford, a senior fellow with the RAND Corporation and senior mentor on the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, offered some suggestions on how the Air Force and DOD can get back in the game. 

"We've already flogged ourselves all over the place, so what are we going to do about it?" she asked rhetorically. "It's a national problem, not an Air Force problem, but the Air Force needs to be part of the solution." 

Ms. Crawford, a 2003 recipient of the Air Force Analytic Community's Lifetime Achievement Award, said the Air Force should increase the number of acquisition officers and civilians who have in-depth knowledge of STEM fields or have STEM-oriented degrees. She also suggested tracking Air Force personnel who already have STEM proficiencies or STEM degrees. 

"It's not good enough to have the experts if you don't know what they're doing and don't have them in a position where they're making the best return on investment, both for the institution and the individual," she said. 

Ms. Crawford said the Air Force should manage STEM career fields across all Air Force specialties and major commands. She recommended making Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford the office of primary responsibility for such a program. General Shackelford is the military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition at the Pentagon. 

She also praised the role the Air Force Academy plays in training officers with scientific and technical backgrounds, and she recommended that the Academy's Dean of Faculty office continue to review the core curriculum to make sure that every graduate has some STEM background. 

"As we broaden what space and cyberspace provide to more warfighters, we'll need people with thinking and training that's different from what we have now," she said. 

Mr. Lemnios said the Academy was "exactly the right venue at exactly the right time" to talk about how to keep the Air Force's edge in technical proficiency because it brought together several generations of STEM experts. He also prompted the audience to think about what the Air Force and the Academy can do to get students interested earlier in their education. 

"My sense is, we have to change what's happening at the early end," he said. "The Academy's science outreach has a huge impact, just as a way to get children to ... understand at least the language of STEM (fields). There's a lot we can do in the K-12 area that can have a huge impact in the future of our nation."