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SPAWAR camps encourage students to pursue STEM careers

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Students attending the Girls Day Out camp attend presentations from professionals. (Photo/Joe Bullinger for the Navy)

Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic hosted several camps this summer to encourage students across the Lowcountry to take a greater interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The sixth annual Palmetto Cybersecurity Summer Camp was a weeklong camp hosted by SPAWAR and Trident Technical College in June at Burke High School.

Volunteers led courses and exercises to help 150 students from Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties learn about the modern information technology environment, especially as it relates to cybersecurity and national defense. The activities gave students hands-on experience in an attempt to generate interest in STEM careers after graduation.

“Part of our job is to make sure that we have the resources of the future that will meet the national defense needs and that the warfighters will be able to have the tools that they need to be successful,” said Shanda Johnson, STEM outreach director for SPAWAR. “So why we’re doing STEM (programs) is to create that pipeline of the future generations that will come back to work for us.”

The three-day Girls Day Out camp gives middle and high school students the chance to with women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries to learn what options there are after high school and college. (Photo/Joe Bullinger for the Navy)

Bill Littleton, cybersecurity outreach lead for SPAWAR, said the feedback that he’s heard from students about the camp has been great.

“Those students in high school get a more realistic idea of what they’re going to encounter when they start going into college courses, and especially when they get out into the real world,” he said.

The second camp, hosted in collaboration with Trident Tech at the end of July, hosted more than 100 girls for the seventh annual Girls Day Out at the Trident Tech and College of Charleston campuses.

Girls Day Out is a three-day camp designed to promote STEM career fields to rising eighth- and ninth-grade girls, giving the students a chance to connect with women in STEM industries through demonstrations and discussions.

“We wanted the girls to get exposed to the camp early on so that STEM fields are actually something they feel they can pursue and that they recognize as areas they are likely really good at,” Jenifer Pinckney, SPAWAR electrical engineer and camp co-coordinator, said in a news release.

More than 30 volunteers from Naval Health Clinic Charleston, SPAWAR and the community helped students explore several technically focused activities, such as 3D printing and modeling, manufacturing, robotics cording and nursing.

“Women in STEM fields are underrepresented,” Anishi Scott, a SPAWAR computer scientist and camp co-coordinator, said in a statement. “We feel like with a diverse background of what we bring to technology, it definitely helps in developing new applications and systems. We offer different perspectives than our male counterparts.”

Johnson said the camp is meant in some ways to mimic the college experience, which means students also eat in the College of Charleston dining hall and sleep in the dormitories.

The camp included talks on public speaking, dress and appearance, networking techniques and online security.

“What we try to do throughout the camp is infuse soft skills alongside technical skills so that we are building up the girls’ self-esteem and also emphasizing areas that they will need to be proficient in when they go into the workforce,” Scott said.

Students explore 3D printing and modeling, manufacturing, coding and nursing. (Photo/Joe Bullinger for the Navy)

Johnson said the students are required to bring a parent on the final day of camp. While the girls go to a business expo to learn about career opportunities, the parents attend an information session about getting ready for college.

“We’re trying to develop and create that pipeline at an early age so that they don’t get in high school and not be prepared for these types of careers and futures,” Johnson said.

The girls are also given an award during a closing ceremony to recognize what they learned during the camp.

“I want the girls to walk away with inspiration — knowing they can achieve anything they want to, whether it’s science-related or not,” Pinckney. “I want them to know that whatever it is they want to do, they can achieve it.”

Other initiatives

Johnson said the camps are one part of the STEM outreach SPAWAR does to engage students in the community; it also sponsors robotics teams in Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester counties and attends career fairs across the region.

Littleton said a lot of interest in the STEM programs begins with the weeklong cybercamp, which gives students a chance to have a variety of experiences — including deconstructing a computer, working with robotics and circuits, and learning what networks are — to figure out what they’re most interested in.

“As they progress up through the years in the camp and they keep returning, they get to more in-depth in some of those different areas,” she said. “If they like programming, we have a separate high school programming track. We have a cyberdefense track if they want to learn more about security monitoring and things like that. ... It really helps feed each other into these other programs we have.”

SPAWAR also has a summer internship program for high school students to get a feel for how the command operates.

“When they have those individuals who are mentors, and we’re taking part in helping them in these competitions and helping to make choices in career direction and things like that, they really take that to heart,” Littleton said. “They see that there is a great connection there and they want to come back and work for an organization that is investing in them.”

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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