WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – The STEM Full Throttle events on May 10, 2022 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, and May 12, 2022 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, proved to be successful this year after two years without, due to the pandemic. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Games Research Integration for Learning, or GRILL, hosted the events with 12 schools present between the two sites.
Dr. Wink Bennett, team leader for the GRILL and readiness product line manager with the 711th Human Performance Wing, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, said that he and other AFRL members were moved as they watched the buses pull up for the science, technology, engineering and maths event at Eldora Speedway.
“After two years of not being able to do it, it was really great to be back here,” he said. “The children were as enthusiastic and excited as ever. I think the teachers were really excited to be back here to do this again…even though two years have passed…I don’t think we’ve lost an ounce of inspiration or an ounce of excitement in the field of STEM. You can see it in the projects and faces of children today.
Local students were able to learn throughout the school year and apply their skills in physics, graphic design and marketing to create various projects that were showcased at the event. Projects included virtual reality, or VR, simulators, drones, autonomous vehicles and RC cars.
“We had middle and high school kids from rural Ohio [at the speedway]so we like to think this is an inspiring opportunity for them to not only develop their own STEM skills… but also to compete against some of their peers,” Bennett said.
A teacher from St. Henry High School agreed and stressed the importance of student interaction among peers, as well as with on-site professionals.
“It’s such a great event,” said Angie Wendel, an engineering and technology teacher at St. Henry High School.
Wendel said being able to showcase their projects and see the reactions of other students instills a necessary level of pride in their work. She also underlined the importance for students to share the difficulties they encountered while creating their projects.
“I think it’s important to develop that sense of achievement and perseverance to know that [it] is common to encounter these things, but you keep going and end up with a really cool [project]”, Wendell said.
Since Wendel has been a part of the event since its inception, she said she has seen former students who have participated in the STEM event make a career out of it.
“Some of the other students didn’t really have a clear direction of where they were going or what they wanted to do,” she added. “But giving them opportunities like this and interacting with other professionals – it really gives them…exposure.”
One piece of advice Wendel said she always gives her students is “to be curious, persistent and passionate.”
Wendel said that bringing AFRL together with local schools to create the STEM exhibit is a great opportunity.
“It’s a different perspective because the Air Force is able to integrate…engineering [and] technology through the GRILL,” she said. “People don’t think of using game engines to develop professional simulations that the Air Force uses.”
“It’s a really cool thing to expose kids to,” she added.
While the main event is arguably the remote RC vehicle race, some schools have focused on computer-related projects.
This was the case for Matt Grote, a technology education teacher at Arcanum Butler High School.
“This event has always been great for us to come and show off the STEM-related projects we’ve been working on throughout the year,” Grote said. “This year we have worked a lot with modeling and simulation.”
Grote said the children used various computer programs to create 3D models and integrate them into a VR game.
This year, Grote students created a virtual reality rolling ball game and hot dog shop.
Arcanum Butler High School student Connor Moores, 17, was part of the group to create a VR game. Through trial and error and various programs, he said their VR pizza stand became a hot dog stand.
Initially, Moores didn’t think the project would take a long time, but he soon realized it was a building process.
Moores said there were times he couldn’t understand why something wasn’t working.
“But then I found out that the problem was quite simple…and it was nice to fix the problem easily,” Moores added.
He also said it was rewarding to see the steps and all the work that went into the project, especially when he saw other students playing the VR game on the speedway.
“Seeing people come up with different ways to do what we actually wanted to do for the game is kind of cool,” Moores said.
“Sometimes when [the students are] do a project in class, [they] don’t really see the importance of it apart from [the classroom]”, Grote said. “So to have events like this where you’re not really judged on what you do, but you have the opportunity to show what you’ve done – and then to really see what what other schools have done – it really shows them that it’s worth it.”
With AFRL personnel on site, they were able to interact with the students and show them similar projects created by the Air Force.
“Having the Air Force research lab here really shows the kids that there’s a career path they could take,” Grote said.
Grote said a career in a STEM field can be challenging at times and it’s important to keep trying.
“You’re going to have to try and try again, and keep going, go all the way and persevere,” Grote added. “And they finally see the results when they come here and show that every time they’ve failed and finally fixed something, it’s really worth it in the end.”
With a strong focus on STEM for workforce development, Bennett said it was important for the AFRL to be part of the process of getting kids excited about STEM.
“You never know what… what happens today is going to inspire someone to pursue a career in STEM in the future,” Bennett said. “And if we only get one spark a day, that’s a big deal. Usually we light a small fire and it’s really good.
For students considering a career in STEM, Bennett suggested they visit the GRILL for a summer or enroll in the Wright Scholar Research Assistant program that allows high school students to work with the Air Force and to pursue their interest in a STEM career field. You can find more information on the program information sheet.
“Thank you all for the opportunity to do this…we can’t do this without the AFRL, nor can we do this without community involvement,” Bennett said. “It takes a village to do this stuff and I’m glad we’re part of it.”
Schools in attendance included: Northmont City Schools, Arcanum Butler High School, Tri-County North, St. Henry High School, National Train High School, Coldwater High School, Franklin Monroe High School, Versailles High School, Eaton High School, Valley View Junior High School, Oakwood High School, and Dayton Regional STEM School.
About the AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the principal scientific research and development center of the Department of the Air Force. The AFRL plays a critical role in the discovery, development and integration of affordable combat technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a staff of over 11,500 people in nine technology areas and 40 other operations around the world, AFRL offers a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from basic research to advanced research and technology development. For more information visit: www.afresearchlab.com.