Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry O. Spencer spoke to local educators

Building a STEM Workforce – Top Priority for National Security

America’s ability to maintain its position as a technological superpower entirely depends on how we cultivate our future STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) workforce. As the old guard leaves (those engineers and scientists whose shoulders we stand upon) people are starting to ask, “What now? What’s next?” The lack of young people pursuing degrees and careers in the science is starting to make people worry about who’s going to invent, design, and build the infrastructure of the future.

When you realize how crucial STEM is to the future wellbeing of America, it makes sense that the United States Department of Defense (DoD) is starting to get involved. The DoD is the executive branch of the federal government that coordinates all agencies and functions of the government concerned with national security. An absence in the STEM workforce is a huge issue, as it undermines multiple aspects of our national security at once. Without cutting edge STEM initiatives, America will fall behind technologically, from a defense standpoint, and of course economically.

Annually the DoD spends $1.7 billion on basic research, operating over 50 labs scattered across nearly two-dozen states, making them largest Federal employer of scientists and engineers in the nation. Not bad!

The DoD has even released a STEM Education and Outreach Strategic Plan. The primary goals of the Strategic Plan are to Inspire, Develop, Attract, and Deliver. The objectives of these goals include: increasing awareness about the importance of STEM; providing educational opportunities at the community level; engaging populations underrepresented in STEM fields; increasing diversity in STEM fields; increase the number of military personnel with STEM competencies; develop a systematic approach to identifying STEM education and outreach programs; and provide a publicly accessible inventory of DoD STEM programs.

Here are some stats pulled from the Strategic Plan to stress the current problem: In 1985 China granted about the same number of Engineering degrees as the US. They granted nearly 4 times as many by 2005. The average age of federal scientists and engineers is on the rise. What’s more, by 2020 a significant portion of DoD professionals working in the lab will be gone, either through retirement or attrition.

The Mission of the DoD’s Research Directorate for STEM Development is to “Provide Departmental leadership in STEM through policy development and oversight leveraging intradepartmental collaboration and interagency cooperation.” Here’s a list of the top DoD STEM initiatives:

· Air Force STEM: A tool to coordinate and connect Air Force STEM programs across the Air Force enterprise.

· Army’s Educational Outreach Program (AEOP): Research, education, competitions, internships and practical experiences designed to engage students and teachers in STEM education. One interesting curriculum from this Army-sponsored program is the eCYBERMISSION, which increases STEM literacy for middle school students through website tutorials based on next-gen technology

· National Defense Education Program (NDEP): This program gives students and researchers opportunities for direct engagement with DoD labs and technical staff.

· National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowships (NSSEFF): Provides long-term funding to 29 scholars at top U.S. universities. These scholars work with nearly 400 undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs in executing their research, while providing a bridge to DoD research facilities.

· President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST): An advisory group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers who directly advise the President and the Executive Office of the President, making policy recommendations concerning science, technology, and innovation.

· Navy’s STEM to Stern (STEM2Stern) program: An information portal for students, teachers, counselors, and mentors.

· Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) program: A scholarship-for-service program that has funded approximately undergraduate and graduate students in 19 different STEM fields.

· Systems Engineering Capstone: A pilot program designed to engineering skills and the pipeline of capable engineers to the DoD. 300 undergraduate and graduate students at 5 universities, 5 military institutions, and 6 partners have participated in the pilot program alongside DoD civilian, military, and industry mentors.

If America is to remain a world leader, it can’t afford to miss out on advancements in science or technology. In order to support the growth and continued prosperity of this country, America must continue to build on its STEM workforce, our backbone of ingenuity and security.