MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. – Eastern North Carolina students are getting hands-on exposure to future technical careers, thanks to a small team of Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) engineers and educators who are bringing technology to area classrooms.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach falls under the umbrella of the Fleet Support Team’s Advanced Technology and Innovation (ATI) Team. The ATI team develops innovative technology programs and applications to solve problems that affect FRCE and Navy and Marine Corps aviation. The ATI team has dedicated two engineers and a former teacher to STEM outreach, with a goal of providing educational resources – such as equipment, project plans and volunteers – to area schools to assist teachers in developing technology-based lessons. According to Randall Lewis, Innovation Lead for the ATI Team, the end goal of this support is to encourage students to consider pursuing careers in a technology field.

 “Through our outreach efforts, we’re able to assist local educators with lesson planning and provide them with resources that the students may not traditionally have had access to,” Lewis said. “We’re able to take the curriculum that they’re teaching and apply it to more real world situations that we might encounter in the types of work we do at the FRC. That gives students the types of experience that they wouldn’t usually have had access to in a traditional classroom setting.”

The centerpiece of the STEM Outreach program is an innovative mobile fabrication space called the FABLAB. This eye-catching trailer is emblazoned with the FRCE logo and “FABLAB” in bold black letters against a red, white and blue background. Inside the 32-by-8 foot enclosed trailer are 10 computer work stations, four high-end 3D printers, a laser cutter and other equipment designed to allow elementary through high school students the opportunity to solve engineering problems firsthand.

Recently, the FABLAB made a visit to Tucker Creek Middle School in Havelock. Students from David Rackley’s seventh-grade Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) class gazed intently at computer screens as they pondered how to program miniature robots to follow an intersecting path on a piece of paper. 

Rackley said visits by the FABLAB provide a view of STEM opportunities that many children in regular classrooms may not be exposed to.

“Some students don’t get to attend STEM classes because of scheduling, so this is an experience most kids don’t really get,” Rackley said. “There are a few who are really into robotics or other technology, but the FABLAB really opens the eyes of other students and gives them the experience of seeing what’s possible as a future career.”

Chris Rivera, an aerospace engineer working on STEM outreach for the ATI team, taught the coding lesson to six classes of Tucker Creek students. He said that middle school is a good time to reach the students with STEM lessons to help make engineering and other technical careers seem more attainable.

“The kids may think that engineers are just a bunch of people sitting around computers all day, but we’re teaching activities to show students that it’s much more than that,” Rivera said. “They can see that there’s actually teamwork, problem solving, communication. Engineering is more of a team sport than the movies make it out to be.”

Rivera said the computers are set close together in the FABLAB so students can work together to come up with solutions.

“A teacher might call that cheating, but in the engineering world that’s good because you’re collaboratively working to solve a common problem,” he explained.

The STEM outreach team benefits because one of its members has experience as a classroom teacher. Michelle Smith, ATI educational outreach coordinator, taught middle school STEM classes before coming to work at FRCE. Smith’s role is to serve as a liaison between area school districts and the depot. In addition to the FABLAB, the STEM outreach program includes sending engineers to volunteer at career days, STEM nights, robotic competitions, engineering camps and other activities where they can leave a positive impression about technology careers in general and Fleet Readiness Center East in particular.

Smith said the team focuses its outreach efforts within a 100-mile radius of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, to communicate to local students that they can find lucrative engineering and manufacturing jobs close to home at FRCE.

“We are trying to strengthen our pipeline for our workforce, getting them interested in careers in engineering early, so we can be a part of their journey through school,” Smith said. “It’s important for us to be involved and provide an opportunity for interactions with current engineers so students will consider engineering and consider coming back to us so we can keep our local talent here in eastern North Carolina.”

The STEM outreach team recently learned it had won four new grants from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) New Start program to enhance FRCE’s existing outreach efforts. The outreach program already has STEM carts, complete with gadgets and activities, in all Craven County elementary schools. The “STEM is Elementary” initiative will allow the team to expand these carts to another local county and create design challenges for younger students. “STEM is Challenging” will develop STEM competitions for high school students and engage a more diverse audience beyond those taking engineering classes.  “STEM is for Everyone” will bring the FABLAB and other outreach activities to area Boys and Girls clubs and other community groups. The last initiative, “STEM is Flexible,” will focus on developing in-depth lesson kits that teachers can check out and present, often with the assistance of an FRCE engineer.

Lewis said it’s gratifying to see how far the outreach program has come since the FABLAB was introduced in 2016.  He said that with the ONR grants and better communication with area schools, the future is bright for STEM outreach at FRCE.

“We’re able to fund more things, so we’re able to do more things. It’s only going to be bigger, and that’s exciting,” Lewis said. “It’s really reflects positively on the FRC and the type of work that we do and the impact that we make.”

FRCE is North Carolina’s largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $1 billion. The depot provides service to the fleet while functioning as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.