Bringing Real World STEM to Students

Volunteers from MITRE's Software Engineering Technical Center frequently travel through Virginia horse country to Highland School in Warrenton—population 10,000—to share their love of technology with the next generation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals.

About an hour from Washington DC, the small private school delivers a classics education to more than 500 pre-K through 12 students. MITRE volunteers play a key role for Highland. The school is challenged with hiring teachers who offer depth in STEM academics, as it's difficult for the school to compete for experts typically drawn to nearby tech hub opportunities.

"We started three years ago, meeting the headmaster and the high school's Team Robohawk to establish relationships and discuss bringing MITRE expertise into their classrooms," says MITRE's Frank Driscoll, associate technical director. "We have a robust internship program and relationships with colleges. With this effort, we're enhancing relationships with younger students to highlight STEM even earlier."

MITRE contributes to the school's curriculum via lectures throughout the year. Students also have the opportunity for a two-week internship for one or two seniors' on-site capstone occupational experience. Finally, a field trip brings the school's robotics club to MITRE's Robot Day at our offices in McLean, Virginia.

Matthew Bocknek, a cybersecurity engineer, identifies MITRE speakers and handles logistics for lectures that dovetail with the school's existing curriculum. Seven other employees bring MITRE STEM experience to students on topics like reverse engineering, artificial intelligence, and computer platforms and languages like the Raspberry Pi and Python. MITRE's Highland School mentors include Bocknek, Ruth Catlett, Keven Ring, Robert Bolling, Agustin Mora, Ivan Ramiscal, and Jenna Lee.

A Feather in Their Capstone

Vetted by the school and the technical center's division leadership, one or two students visit the McLean campus each year to fulfill their capstone occupational requirement for graduation. Additionally, capstone students are eligible for a full summer internship based on their experience, interest, and MITRE's needs.

Ring, a principal software systems engineer, says the program has grown into quite a partnership. "Our presentations help better equip them for future STEM experiences," he says. "It also creates a new pipeline for promising young talent at MITRE that we can really mentor from the ground up."

"Using small computers and relatively inexpensive sensors, we've demonstrated live face detection and 3D scanning," he says. "The students gravitate toward the state of the possible, because it combines their mechanical engineering skills with their software development abilities. This motivates them to expand their skills—and it falls directly in line with their coursework."

Domo Arigato, Mister Roboto

Once a year, MITRE invites high schoolers to Robot Day. Last year, the students proudly displayed their invention alongside MITRE initiatives such as the DARPA Grand Challenge Meteor.

Some students take STEM classes because of curriculum requirements. But others already have a robotics background and genuine interest, says Catlett, a software systems engineer and Highland mentor.  She spoke to the students about the Raspberry Pi.

"They've used the hardware, so when we get into the software programming component, it really brings things together for them," Catlett says. "The sessions are interactive, with students asking questions and offering lively discussion."

Catlett says the robotics team shares an exceptional passion for the field. "They were excited to take us to their lab, demonstrate their robot, and ask for feedback."

Highland alum Melanie Shere, an administrator in the technical center, says the biggest impact she's seen from the program is general overall STEM exposure.

"Some, but not all, students are dialed into technology," she says. "It's rare now that you would think this could be an anomaly for some people. We're opening them up to a whole new world of possibilities."

She believes earlier is better, when considering the timing of this exposure. And for the kids? "They say, 'Wow, this is really cool!'" she notes.

Bocknek believes it speaks volumes for the volunteer program that at least one capstone intern added computer science to his original major of mechanical engineering, becoming a double major. "He really caught the computer science bug!" he says.

Driscoll adds, "The effort not only resonates with MITRE's mission to work for the public good, it also introduces them to interesting work and helps them consider new career opportunities."

—by Staci Lindblad