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NEWS | Oct. 26, 2016

Naval Academy STEM Team brings 'best practices' workshop to NRL

By Michael Hart

Professors from the U.S. Naval Academy’s Best Practices in STEM Outreach program held a train-the-educator workshop at the Naval Research Lab, Wash., D.C., Oct. 18, 2016.

Twelve attendees, a mixture of scientists, engineers and staff from the NRL; active duty members and local teacher liaisons, were looking for different means of reaching young students using STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) hands-on activities.

The USNA STEM Center team was here to support the local STEM community. Their mission during the day-long workshop was to explore best practices for facilitating U.S. Navy STEM outreach sessions at various venues and in schools, using Navy related topics.

“We try to find different activities that are fun, hands-on and easy to reproduce in the classroom,” said Professor Angela Moran, who visited NRL with three other team members – Professors Patrick Moran, Sarah Durkin and Mark Murray.

Moran, a mechanical engineering professor at the academy, is the STEM team leader. “Within this STEM initiative, we work with commands across the country to help them build local STEM communities using best practices,” she said.

The training at NRL focused on three areas -- electrochemistry and corrosion; aerospace fluids and engineering; and mechanics and materials – and included a number of easy to reproduce projects, such as creating a battery from pennies and zinc washers, separated by vinegar-soaked napkins.

According to Moran, she and her team, which includes four other academy faculty and staff, another 40 USNA faculty members and staff on a part-tine basis and 250 midshipmen, provide training at commands nationwide about once a quarter. “We’ve provided training throughout the Washington, DC metro area and at different commands from Norfolk, Va.; to Great Lakes, Ill.; and San Diego,” she noted.

The best practices, Moran emphasized, include hands-on, interactive engagement between students and teachers.

“It’s exciting,” said NRL’s Dr. Paul Natishan, a 33-year researcher who works in the lab’s chemistry division and recently volunteered to help with the STEM outreach. “Inside classrooms is where the difference can be made for students, beginning at an early age,” Natishan said. “It’s important to get young students involved,” he continued, “but it’s just as critical to get teachers involved as well. They affect more people and will make a larger impact [because of it].”

NRL’s Dr. Sandra Hernandez, a research scientist in the plasma physics division for five years, began working with the STEM training program about three years ago, when her daughter entered kindergarten. “Science needs to be fun for kids, and I wanted to help out,” said Hernandez, who volunteers at two schools in Northern Virginia and the District. “I started going to my daughter’s class when she first started school and I still enjoy it,” she said. “It’s important to show hands-on and relatable concepts to kids before abstract concepts.”

The workshop, Natishan concluded, provided some good ideas on how to get students and educators involved. “The projects are easy to do, simple for teachers to demonstrate and easy for kids to understand,” he said. “Kids need to know science can be fun is more than just numbers.”

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