Students step into a large airplane hangar on Naval Air Station North Island, but instead of planes filling the space, booths snake around the room. Tiny circuit boards, LEGO robots, cameras that see up to 8 miles away, tanks and planes parked outside and men and women from the United States Navy, Coast Guard and Marines mingle behind their stations.
It’s the 5th Annual Youth Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) Day that happened July 31, as part of the National Naval Officers Association goal of introducing these subjects to 6th to 12th grade students from greater San Diego.
Arthur Johnson, retired Navy Rear Admiral and aviator who came on board as the STEM coordinator in February, believes strongly in the importance of this event.
“I know what this event might mean for some of the kids. It gives them a little bit of focus, it gives them a reason to do what they need to do,” Johnson says.
Childhood opportunity to life of aviation
Johnson reminisced on his own childhood of having the opportunity to fly in a helicopter at the age of 12 that inspired him to pursue a life of aviation within the Navy.
With the subject of STEM comes a similar passion of diversity for Johnson that includes men and women as well as people of different races and ethnicities.
Johnson says it’s important for these kids who walk through life to see people who look like them doing these things, either within STEM or within the military. And, he noted, this event makes that possible.
When I was growing up, it was difficult because there weren’t very many Black boys. I made it all the way through flight training and I was a flight instructor teaching other people to fly before I flew with another Black pilot. It was such a big deal.”-Arthur Johnson, retired Navy Rear Admiral and aviator.
“When I was growing up, it was difficult because there weren’t very many Black boys. I made it all the way through flight training and I was a flight instructor teaching other people to fly before I flew with another Black pilot. It was such a big deal,” Johnson says. “The whole 33 years I was in the Navy, we never had more than six Black female pilots.”
Visuals of success
The STEM event aimed to provide visuals of success within different fields for the students walking through the hangar.
In the corner, yells and screams were coming from a booth surrounded by kids.
It’s LEGO robotics, and the students were building their own robots.
Davon Copeland, a former gunner’s mate, completed 20 years in the Navy before moving on to Western Governors University working in Strategic Partnerships.
He was running the booth as part of Code Wiz, a company dedicated to teaching kids how to code.
“In their mind, they think that they’re playing games and getting this robot that they build on their own, but they’re not. They’re learning the basics and they’re getting brilliant on the basics of coding with scratch, drag and drop,” Copeland says.
Military’s close ties to STEM
Copeland explains that STEM and the military are not as far apart as one may think.
“A person is going to come in, they’re going to look at your stuff and they’re going to be like, ‘it’s not within specs.’…And so in the military, coming down to that punctilious degree of accuracy is extremely important, just as it is when you do engineering,” Copeland says.
Meanwhile, five or six LEGO robots sit on the booth, all built and ready to move.
Kyelin King, a 17-year-old Lincoln High School student walks around with a group of his friends.
King wants to study biomedicine and sports medicine. He said having an interest in science and coming to the event sparked some curiosity in him in the robotics field.
Dog tag experiment
A booth for the Marine Corps System Command sat in the middle of the room.
A group of teenagers stood on one side, heads down, hands focused on a dog tag.
They learned about the conductivity of salt water acting as erosion on the dog tag.
With electric tape, they make a design on the steel dog tag, and with this science experiment, they erode the parts of the dog tag that aren’t covered with tape.
What emerges is the eroded steel outlining their design.
Navy planes and helicopters
Outside the hangar, a handful of Navy planes and helicopters are parked, with a Marine tank and a Coast Guard boat next to them all lined in a row.
Kids explored the aircrafts and vehicles, climbing in the cockpits, touching the buttons and pretending they’re out to sea.
This event and its goals have been a work in progress, finding diversity in STEM and in the military.
“It’s slow work, but it’s necessary,” Johnson says.