WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) — The Full Throttle STEM events May 10, 2022, at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, and May 12, 2022, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, proved to be successful this year after two years without, due to the pandemic. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Gaming Research Integration for Learning Lab, or GRILL, hosted the events with 12 schools in attendance between both locations.
Dr. Wink Bennett, team lead for the GRILL and readiness product line lead with the 711th Human Performance Wing, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, said he and other AFRL members were emotional watching the busses pull up for the science, technology, engineering and math event at the Eldora Speedway.
“After two years of not being able to do this, it was really great to be back here,” he said. “The kids were as enthusiastic and excited as ever. I think the teachers were really thrilled to be back here doing this again … even though two years had passed … I don’t think we lost an ounce of inspiration or an ounce of excitement in the stuff that STEM is about. You can see that in the projects and the kids’ faces today.”
Students in the surrounding areas were able to learn throughout the academic year and apply their skills in physics, graphic design and marketing to create various projects that were highlighted at the event. Projects included virtual reality, or VR, simulators, drones, autonomous vehicles and RC cars.
“We had kids from middle school and high school from rural Ohio [at the speedway]so we like to think this is an inspiring opportunity for them to not only develop their own STEM skills … but also to compete against some of their peers,” Bennett said.
One St. Henry High School teacher agreed and expressed the importance of student interaction amongst peers, as well as with professionals on the site.
“It’s such an awesome event,” said Angie Wendel, an engineering and technology teacher at St. Henry High School.
Wendel said being able to showcase their projects and see other students’ reactions instills a necessary level of pride in their work. She also noted the importance of students sharing difficulties they ran into while creating their projects.
“I think it’s important to develop that sense of success and perseverance to know that [it] is common to run into these things, but you just keep going and end up with a really cool [project],” Wendell said.
Since Wendel has been part of the event since its inception, she said she has seen past students who have participated in the STEM event go on to make a career out of it.
“Some of the other students didn’t really have a clear direction for where they were going or what they wanted to do,” she added. “But giving them opportunities like this and to interact with other professionals — it gives them … exposure really.”
One piece of advice Wendel said she always gives her students is “to be curious, be persistent and be passionate.”
Wendel said bridging AFRL with local schools to create the STEM exposure is a great opportunity.
“It’s a different perspective because the Air Force is able to incorporate … engineering [and] technology through the grill,” she said. “People don’t think of using gaming engines to develop professional simulations that the Air Force is using.”
“It’s a really cool thing to expose kids to,” she added.
While the main event is arguably racing the remote RC vehicles, some schools focused on computer-related projects.
Such was the case for Matt Grote, technology education teacher at Arcanum Butler High School.
“This event has always been awesome for us to come to and kind of show off the STEM related projects we have been working on throughout the year,” Grote said. “This year we worked a lot with modeling and simulation.”
Grote said the kids used various computer programs to create 3D models and put them into a VR game.
This year, Grote’s students created a roll-a-ball game and a VR hotdog shop.
Connor Moores, 17, Arcanum Butler High School student, was part of the group to create a VR game. Through trials, errors and various programs, he said their VR pizza stand became a hotdog stand.
Initially, Moores didn’t think the project would take much time, but he quickly realized it was a building process.
Moores said there were times he didn’t understand why something wasn’t working.
“But then I’d find out the problem was pretty simple … and it felt nice solving the problem easily,” Moores added.
He also said it was gratifying to see the steps and all the work that went into the project, especially when he saw other students playing the VR game at the speedway.
“Seeing people find different ways to do what we actually meant for the game to do is nice,” Moores said.
“Sometimes when [the students are] doing a project in class, [they] don’t really see the importance of it outside of [the classroom]Grote said. “So having events like this one where you are not really judged on what you do, but you have an opportunity to showcase what you’ve done — and then really see what other schools have done — it really shows them that it’s worthwhile.”
With AFRL staff on site, they were able to interact with the students and show them similar projects the Air Force created.
“Having the Air Force Research Lab here really shows the kids that there is a career path that they could do,” Grote said.
Grote said a career in a STEM field can be trying at times and it is important to continuously try.
“You’re going to have to try and try again, and keep going and push through and persevere,” Grote added. “And they finally see the results when they come here and show that every time they failed and they finally fixed something, that it’s really worthwhile it in the end.”
With a heavy emphasis on STEM for workforce development, Bennett said it is important that AFRL is part of the process that gets the kids excited about STEM.
“You just never know what … happens today is going to do to spark somebody to go after a STEM career field in the future,” Bennett said. “And if we just get one spark in a day, that’s a big deal. Usually, we start a small fire and that is really good.”
For students thinking of careers in STEM, Bennett suggested they visit the GRILL for a summer or sign up for the Wright Scholar Research Assistant Program which allows high school students to work with the Air Force and further their interest in a STEM career field. More information can be found at the fact sheet for the program.
“Thanks to everyone for the opportunity to do this … we can’t do this without AFRL, we can’t do it without the community’s involvement either,” Bennett said. “It takes a village to do this kind of stuff and I’m happy we’re a part of this one.”
Schools in attendance included: Northmont City Schools, Arcanum Butler High School, Tri-County North, St. Henry High School, National Train High School, Coldwater High School, Franklin Monroe High School, Versailles High School, Eaton High School, Valley View Junior High School, Oakwood High School and Dayton Regional STEM School.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: www.afresearchlab.com.