United States Navy Sustaining Leadership in STEM Education

United States Navy Sustaining Leadership in STEM Education

Since very young, I have been fascinated by U.S. Naval science and technology from submarines to nuclear propulsion to the world’s most advanced aircraft to radar and advanced communications. Like so many Americans my age, I was inspired to pursue a career in science and technology as a result of the United States’ tremendous achievements in space. Similarly, I also felt called to service in the military. Both of these influences were very early and persistent aspirations.

I am privileged to serve as the Director of Research at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) with the responsibility for overseeing broad investments in basic and applied research to increase fundamental knowledge, to foster opportunities for breakthroughs and to provide technology options for future U.S. Naval capabilities and systems. While today I believe the Navy is unsurpassed in the quality of its science and technology, in order to retain that leadership we must invest in innovation and plan wisely for future technology platforms to support our Sailors and Marines. Nothing is more important to fulfilling this mission than maintaining a world-class science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce.

During the past few years, several expert reports have sounded the alarm that the United States lags behind other nations in STEM education, thus putting at risk the nation’s ability to maintain its global leadership, competitiveness and economic strength. President Obama has made STEM education one of his top priorities and called on Federal agencies to contribute to 21st Century leadership in STEM education and outreach.

We in the Navy face additional challenges because of looming retirements of our workforce. Fifty percent of the Department of Defense (DoD) science and technology professionals will be eligible to retire by 2020. In the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) alone, approximately 6,000 engineers and naval architects will be eligible to retire in just three years time. These trends also have an impact on Sailors, who will operate increasingly complex systems in a high technology Navy.

A critical component in sustaining our STEM workforce capabilities is filling the pipeline that leads to STEM careers in the Navy and outside. Yet, we find that students in the U.S. are not choosing to pursue STEM degrees or career paths in sufficiently high numbers. Of the students who do choose to follow a STEM path in college, the attrition rate is disheartening. If the Navy is to remain on a sustainable path, there must be an increase in the number of Americans pursuing and completing undergraduate STEM degrees. We need to get our youth excited and engaged in STEM at an early age.

The Navy has a long history of promoting STEM education and outreach. In Fiscal Year 2010, the Navy invested more than $74 million in 180+ STEM programs and initiatives across 24 commands, reaching more than 59,000 participants across the country. An additional $108 million is invested annually to support domestic graduate students and research assistants under research grants to academic institutions.

Our strategy aims to increase the talent pool from which the next-generation of great Sailors, Marines, naval engineers and scientists will come. Doing so is not only a question of funding, but also of using funds effectively with comprehensive, mutually supportive and creative initiatives. The Navy’s commitment to smart approaches in STEM education and outreach will determine how well we bring in the people we need.

© iStockphoto.com/visualgo

© iStockphoto.com/visualgo

Building on this strong foundation, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has committed to double the Navy’s STEM investments over five years. This commitment enables us to expand our support for programs with proven success in engaging and inspiring children and young people, as well as to maintain our support for higher education and research.

During my time at ONR, I and other interested stakeholders from across the Navy have joined together to create STEM2Stern, a Navy-wide collaboration that focuses on STEM education and outreach, increases coordination and collaboration across the Naval STEM enterprise, and increases the reach and impact of Naval STEM programs.

The U.S. Navy’s STEM2Stern program is already having a significant impact, particularly by increasing the focus on hands-on programming for middle– and high-school students – a format considered to be a “best practice” in interesting students in science. STEM2Stern also is taking steps to increase engagement among Naval STEM professionals and students, which is an important part of expanding student awareness of science and engineering and encouraging continued student interest through mentoring.

I am proud of my role in developing STEM2Stern because it represents, in part, the Navy’s efforts to increase the diversity of our knowledge, experience and capacity by increasing the diversity of our STEM workforce. As population data makes clear, the children and young people who will comprise a majority of the workforce in the near future will be more diverse than the current workforce. Many of the programs the Navy now supports, and a number of the new programs that STEM2Stern has begun to support, focus on students who traditionally have not had opportunities, practical exposure and learning in STEM. I am particularly excited about our involvement in these new experiences, which include:

  • Launching Iridescent in Los Angeles and New York City. I was delighted to launch the Los Angeles science studio in October 2011 in South Central Los Angeles, which has already reached 5,000 students. Iridescent is a science education nonprofit that helps engineers design, develop and teach inquiry-based Family Science Courses (which increase participants’ interest in science, content knowledge and self-efficacy) to 3rd– to 7th-grade underserved, underprivileged minority children and their families. Courses range from Physics of MRI to Bird Flight Aerodynamics, thus illustrating the real-world applications of science concepts and exploiting the power of narrative stories. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus opened another studio in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, stating, “The Navy is very proud of this partnership and investment in the nation’s future.”
  • Launching Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) at several Naval sites. EYH has a mission of encouraging young women to pursue STEM careers and offers a variety of conferences and programs to provide girls with STEM role models, mentors and hands-on activities.
  • Expanding Sea Perch, a hands-on underwater robotics competition for middle– and high-school students. Sea Perch is a proven model that gets students excited about math and science and also offers teacher training. To date, Sea Perch has reached more than 18,000 middle– and high-school students, and is engaging new populations in rural areas through 4-H as well.
  • Launching Youth Exploring Science (YES). YES is a four-year enrichment program offered by the St. Louis Science Center for at-risk high school students that uses a combination of jobs/skills training, hands-on science and engineering courses, mentoring and employment at the Science Center to get students committed to learning. The YES program works with underserved teenagers throughout the course of their high-school career and provides them with an inquiry learning environment that focuses on science, mathematics and technology. The Navy is very excited at the prospect of expanding this program to other national science centers and regions around the country, and reaching even more students with high quality high-school level programming.


We at the Navy are proud to partner with great organizations to expand the reach and impact of STEM2Stern. But this is only the beginning. We are working on several exciting new initiatives and program expansions for this year and next, so stay tuned.

Our mission is to inspire and to encourage even more American students to pursue STEM careers and to prepare them for high paying jobs. These students are the nation’s future and both our national security and economic competitiveness depend on their success.