TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
The scene of a middle school science fair is universal. A packed auditorium, teachers shuffling from project to project busily writing notes on a clipboard and the ever-present smell of vinegar from a volcano project that used way too much baking soda. Something they don’t usually have? A C-17 Globemaster III aircraft parked in the background.
Such was the case during the X-STEM at Travis event Feb. 27.
After braving bitter cold, intermittent rain and, in some cases, two-hour commutes more than 700 middle school students within the Northern California region showed up to Travis Air Force Base with the ardent intent to learn.
Despite the sometimes inclement weather, the two-part event organized between Travis and the USA Science and Engineering Festival to promote interest in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, went off without a hitch.
“This is the first time we’ve hosted our X-STEM event outside of (Washington) D.C.,” said Marc Schulman, USASEF executive director. “We’ve put it on for D.C. students for six years now, so we’re elated to finally be able to offer this to students and communities around the country.”
The event featured a veritable A-Team of guest speakers including NASA engineer, Bobak Ferdowsi, atmospheric scientist, Karen Kosiba, and environmental scientist, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, who all took turns talking with the students about their various areas of expertise and taking questions from interested audience members. The students also spent time with Air Force mentors from both the 60th Air Mobility Wing and the 621st Contingency Response Wing, who guided them through the base’s three cargo aircraft.
Although giving middle school students some insight into promising future careers is a great benefit, it’s not the main focus, said Schulman.
“Our mission is to stimulate and sustain the interest of our nation’s youth in STEM by producing and presenting the most compelling, exciting and educational forum in the world,” said Schulman.
As the pioneering base in the U.S. Air Force’s recent Spark innovation initiative, Travis has been at the forefront of many Air Force-led forays into the civilian sector’s STEM offerings, creating partnerships with organizations in the surrounding area including Silicon Valley, and working to make the barrier between civilian and military thinking less obstructive.
“If we’re going to be the world’s greatest Air Force, we need to keep information exchange between us and the civilian world as open and collaborative as possible,” said Col. Jeffrey Nelson, 60th Air Mobility Wing commander. “That means creating strong, lasting partnerships with our civilian counterparts who work on the cutting edge of technologies and processes that can be applied not only to our own mission of rapidly projecting American power anytime, anywhere, but to the U.S. Air Force’s larger mission of flying, fighting and winning in air, space and cyberspace.”
Despite the Air Force’s push toward innovation in a professional and actionable context, the event itself was seen by Travis leadership as a means to cultivate the students’ passions, and what better way to do so than with a little air power?
“If you think about it, everything that goes into the creation, operation and maintenance of an aircraft relates to STEM in some way,” said Nelson. “Whether that’s applying engineering to maintaining the jet engines, science to understanding the ways weather can affect flying operations, technology to understanding how the navigation systems work or mathematics to knowing how the C-17s’ almost 90-ton payload capacity can impact how much fuel it’ll need to make it to its destination. An aircraft is a microcosm of thousands of different STEM disciplines. Plus, at the end of the day, they’re just awesome.”
“Awesome,” “exciting,” “compelling.” There are many words to describe the day’s events, but none more important, perhaps, than those of one of the students who attended them.
“It was really neat to hear a variety of different speakers talk about subjects we really don’t get to hear much about,” said Andrew Briscese, Crystal Middle School eighth grader. “I’m glad that I got the opportunity to come to Travis for this event; the whole day was fun and informative.”
Andrew’s words reflected the view of one of the event’s guest speakers, a certain blue-mohawked NASA engineer.
“I had the opportunity to speak to 600+ middle school kids today,” wrote Ferdowsi in a tweet. “And as usual, my optimism for the future is renewed.”