VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – The Norfolk District brought out their best when they were invited to a career conference last Friday.
There was the doodler and reluctant biologist. The nature lover. The video-gamer. The guy who likes explosions. The fourth in a family of engineers.
It was Norfolk District’s dream STEM team: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Experts specifically chosen to draw young minds to STEM careers in the military.
The team – Lt. Col. Robert Haupt, Kristen Donofrio, Capt. Antonio Pazos, Nicole Woodward and Josh Williams – led one of 48 sessions at Corporate Landing Middle School’s Second Annual STEM Career Conference, Sept. 28, where more than 800 sixth- and seventh-grade students experienced STEM projects, concepts, activities and information.
Haupt, an Army engineer and Norfolk District’s deputy commander, led the 40-minute session with a brief overview of the mission of Norfolk District as classes of about 20 students rotated throughout the day.
Each teammate took turns telling how they chose a STEM career. After joining the Army and becoming an engineer, Haupt soon learned that he really liked blowing things up. Woodward loved bugs and exploring nature. Williams was winged on video games. Pazos grew up under the nourishment of an engineer dad and two older engineer brothers. Donofrio hated science in grade school, but later fell in love with biology and chemistry.
Haupt began each session by breaking the ice with the students.
“So, you guys came here to learn underwater basket weaving, right? You came here to do push-ups?” Haupt asked. “No,” replied the students, laughing enthusiastically. After introducing his STEM teammates, Haupt shared how the Army taught him how to build bridges and roads, airfields, buildings, and utilities like electrical systems and water sewage facilities.
“The fun thing I was taught was how to blow things up,” Haupt said. “But, before I could blow up old buildings or debris on the road, I first had to make sure it was safe.” Haupt used this illustration to engage the students on how science and math plays an important role when working with explosives.
“The Army Corps of Engineers performs a vital mission for our nation in peace and war by strengthening our nation’s security; building a strong economy so that businesses can do what they do, especially on the waterways; and reducing the risk of property damage and injury to people from natural disasters,” Haupt said.
Woodward, a biologist with the Norfolk District, shared with the students her love of nature and how as a little kid she played outside all the time, hiking in the woods, taking water samples out of ditches with bugs crawling all around. “So when I went to college, I knew I wanted to be in the science field,” Woodward said.
She started out in biology, but actually wanted to be a doctor.
“Once I started taking classes and had a couple of internships, I started to see what I liked a little more and eventually ended up working for the Army Corps of Engineers,” Woodward said.
Woodward works in the district’s regulatory branch and explained to the students how she and her colleagues regulate impacts to waters and wetlands throughout the country.
“So whenever someone wants to build within a wetland, they have to first come through us for a permit,” Woodward said.
She showed the students examples of various projects requiring regulatory permits: shoreline protection, piers, dredging operations, and explained how these projects impact water quality, and why the Corps regulates them.
Williams, an intern in the district’s operations branch, shared with the students the civil engineering, or technology, component of the Corps. He works with AutoCAD: an engineering mapping computer software and industry leader in 2D and 3D design, drafting, modeling and architectural drawing.
“Who likes video games?” he asked the students.
In unison, every hand raised.
“AutoCAD is like a big video game. You get information from other people and put it all together and build this map or a set of design plans, which you can see examples of posted on the blackboard here,” Williams said. “It’s a really fun system, but you’ve got to be tech-savvy. So you need to have a good background in computers.”
Williams told the students to prepare for his career he attended college at an ITT Technical Institute to learn drafting and design.
“Actually, as an intern at the Corps, I’m a student just like you,” Williams said. “I work throughout the day, and at night I attend Tidewater Community College, working toward a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. I really enjoy my internship here; I’ve got a lot of great mentors here and the Corps supports me 100 percent.”
Capt. Pazos is a civil engineer in the district’s engineering and construction branch. He told the students that his dad is an engineer along with his two older brothers.
“Growing up I always liked puzzles. My dad and brothers told me I always wanted to know how things worked. I would take things apart and try to put them back together…they told me I probably wanted to be an engineer,” Pazos said. “In high school I started taking courses that would lead me to a career in engineering. I applied and was accepted in Virginia Tech’s engineering program. I then became interested in the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. So I became and Army officer as well as a civil engineer.”
Pazos currently works as a project engineer at Langley Air Force Base and supports the renovation of the base’s hospital.
“I deal with the project’s contractor and customer, the hospital leadership. We are part of the team that ensures the contractor is doing what we are paying him to do. We’re using taxpayer’s money and it’s important that we get it right,” Pazos said.
Pazos said that he uses some of the drawings that Williams creates. “After reviewing them, we go to the construction site and talk to the contractor and customer and make sure the project is being completed according to the design plans.”
Pazos ended his presentation by quizzing the students on how all components of STEM are used in the design and construction of a project.
The final presenter was Kristen Donofrio, a biologist in the district’s operations branch. Donofrio focused on the mathematics component of STEM.
“When I attended school at your age, I hated biology and chemistry,” Donofrio revealed. “I used to sit in class and doodle. The tests and stuff…it was horrible! But when I attended college, I loved it. So just because you think this is not for you now; always keep your options open.”
Donofrio told the students that one of the cool things she does as part of her field work is building beaches. She also said she writes a lot of environmental assessments. “I talk about what types of animals and plants are out there, what kind of impact building this beach will have on the environment and their habitat.”
Donofrio shared examples of her work and how math plays a huge role. “You can’t just throw a beach wherever you want. We have to first figure out if there are contaminants in the area that would pose a threat to human or animal life. No one wants to play in toxic stuff, right? So we take samples of the soil at different depths, and send it to a lab for testing to ensure the material is acceptable before we place it on the beach,” she said.
Donofrio also talked about wildlife management and the importance of water quality and the process the Corps uses to ensure the water is safe. She cited the oyster reef project at Norfolk District.
“We have baby oyster spats floating in the water and growing in little cages. We’ll take them out and measure them; we’ll take water quality samples to see how clear the water is, what the temperature is, the amount of salinity, or salt in the water. We’ll nurture them until they mature and are able to reproduce.”
Dr. Daniel Smith, principal of Corporate Landing Middle School, had nothing but praise for the community’s efforts to provide his students the opportunity to explore a variety of careers and professional opportunities in the STEM-related fields.
“The world is changing at such an incredible rate that we cannot predict the jobs needed for our students 5 or 10 years from now,” Smith said. “However, we do know that all students will need to be able to communicate, collaborate, and think critically and creatively while developing innovative solutions for problems. The STEM concept at Corporate Landing Middle School focuses on the Engineering Design Process as a way to develop critical thinking and problem-solving through effective communication and collaboration.
“This annual conference is an incredible opportunity for students to interact with experts and professionals from STEM-related fields and to discover how their learning is relevant.”
Norfolk District’s STEM program was formed in 2010, as part of the Defense Department’s ongoing initiative to attract students to pursue STEM careers in the military. Students just don't have an excitement for it, Defense officials said, adding that these type career opportunity events introduce STEM in a fun way to students at an early age.
Next up for Norfolk District’s STEM team: an Oct. 17 invitation to Woodside High School, Newport News, Va., and their annual Senior Planning Day.