Hill encourages future engineers, programmers

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — A group of seventh-graders from the Weber State University Prefreshman Engineering Program recently saw the Air Force behind the scenes for the first time. For most of them, it was eye-opening as they toured the explosive ordnance device area and facilities for pilot life support and emergency preparedness. 

Roy Junior High School student Cameron McKay didn’t expect to see so many types of explosives and admits he didn’t realize engineering was such an integral part of the Air Force. 

“I thought I had to join the military to do that stuff, but after that trip, I’ve realized a lot of engineers are involved in the Air Force and now I think it’s an option I’d like to look into,” Cameron said. 

STEM Program Manager Alison Sturgeon says that is a recurring comment she hears from students who tour Hill AFB. 

“They don’t even have a clue what it means to be an engineer or computer programmer for the Air Force because they don’t have a connection to it, but that changes when they see it in action,” Sturgeon said. “We hope to inspire many young students to continue studying math and science by giving them opportunities to see and hear the exciting and meaningful work engineers and scientists actually do.”

Since the lack of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce is considered to be a national security crisis, especially since the armed services have to hire U.S. citizens, Sturgeon says Hill AFB is taking an active role in supporting a K-12 STEM Outreach program in the area and statewide. The base needs to hire more than 200 engineers and computer scientists each year to maintain and expand its workload.

The heavy focus on STEM at Hill AFB has picked up speed in the last several years, facilitating a myriad of STEM programs and competitions. Many are implemented through nearby school districts, such as Mission to Mars, where students simulate going on a manned mission to the planet Mars and build colonies; and the popular FIRST and VEX robotics competitions, in addition to the SeaPerch Underwater Robotics. 

A few months ago, Hill AFB planned and provided support for the first Utah STEM Festival, with 15,000 people in attendance over three days. The Hill Aerospace Museum provided an F-16 cockpit for display and arranged for the Air Force Motion Simulator “Rapid Strike” to be a highlight of the event.

Hill AFB also offers programs each month at the base library for military families and oversees two STEM programs supported by grants: the STEM Outreach program currently funded by the National Defense Education Program, and STARBASE, a Department of Defense-funded program, a science camp for sixth-grade students. 

“The State of Utah has made great strides to increase STEM awareness and provide funding, support and coordination for STEM activities,” Sturgeon said. “In order to maximize our limited resources, we also coordinate efforts with the Utah State Office of Education, the Utah After-School Network, local school districts, advisory boards for higher education, industrial associations and the Department of Workforce Services.”

Though results of the Air Force STEM push for students won’t be seen for another five to 10 years, Sturgeon points out that, “We are putting on this huge push in the state of Utah, and the hardest part of this job is determining the return on investment, but if we don’t do anything, then it’s definitely not going to get any better,” Sturgeon said. 

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