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Middle school students Ashley Ford, Kelan Wheeler and Drake Kronenberg test their Lego-constructed ground vehicle, inspired by the 2021 “Perseverance” Mars landing, during the 10th installment of the Marine Corps Systems Command Summer STEM Camp June 23 at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. Hosted by Marine Corps Systems Command, the weeklong camp fostered a creative environment that enabled local teens to experience hands-on STEM activities inspired by NASA. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Matt Gonzales)

Photo by MCSC OPAC

STEM Camp 2021: Students build robots, drones to honor historic NASA events

7 Jul 2021 | Matt Gonzales, MCSC Office of Public Affairs and Communication Marine Corps Systems Command

In June, more than 40 local teens congregated within Quantico Middle/High School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, for the 10th installment of the Marine Corps Systems Command Summer Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Camp.

The weeklong camp fostered a creative environment that enabled local teens to experience hands-on STEM activities inspired by NASA. Students learned to code, constructed robots, built telescopes, programmed drones to fly and even created a solar hot dog oven.

“This STEM Camp is an opportunity for students to have fun, meet new people and engage in STEM activities that potentially could inspire them to enter a STEM field one day,” said Joy Champion, MCSC’s engineering competency manager and Federal STEM action officer.

MCSC and the Naval STEM Coordination Office at the Office of Naval Research collaborated in its outreach efforts. The Marine Corps also worked with QMHS on this project, as several of the school’s teachers served as camp instructors.

Throughout the week, students worked in small groups and learned the importance of teamwork and communication in completing complex projects. They gleaned knowledge from MCSC engineers and QMHS teachers, who were eager to impart critical STEM concepts to the young learners.

“Events like this STEM Camp teach kids to think critically,” said Tom Carroll, an assistant portfolio manager for Engineering at MCSC. “I always enjoy seeing kids experience that ‘A-ha’ moment—when their faces light up after they learn how something works.”

The theme for this year’s learning program was “Space Exploration,” tying to NASA’s Mars landings of its Perseverance rover in February 2021 and the first flight of a helicopter drone called Ingenuity in April 2021.

Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to the Red Planet, according to the federal agency’s website. Ingenuity was the first aircraft to attempt a controlled flight on another planet.

I always enjoy seeing kids experience that ‘A-ha’ moment—when their faces light up after they learn how something works.Tom Carroll, an assistant portfolio manager for Engineering at Marine Corps Systems Command

Commemorating these historic events, the student groups used Lego pieces to construct small, motorized vehicles similar to the Perseverance rover. Each team was required to build the complex vehicle, conduct practice runs and then employ it during required exercises.

The challenge saw students leverage a trial-and-error process of finding inventive ways to test their vehicles. It required teamwork, creativity and, like the project’s namesake, perseverance.

“I really enjoyed seeing the students interact with one another and work together to find innovative solutions to problems,” said Champion.

Students also used a sophisticated software program to embed code into drones. This challenge required the teens to calculate air speed and understand the air density in order to maneuver their aircraft through a series of obstacles that simulate air missions on Mars.

However, students were not permitted to touch their drones while testing them. Instead, they relied on software coding to transmit commands via a Bluetooth adapter.

“They had to use a software program to code the vehicles and fly them through hula hoops of different sizes and at different heights,” said Champion. “And they worked as a team to get the job done.”

Several MCSC representatives served as guest speakers during the camp, including additive manufacturing expert Joe Burns, Sgt. Maj. Michael Cato and Deputy to the Commander for Systems Engineering and Acquisition Logistics Edwin A. Stewart.

Stewart, who serves as the Marine Corps’ chief engineer, spoke about the great inventors throughout history and their influence on his own journey as an engineer. He said innovators like Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci all shared an unyielding interest in learning, a characteristic that helped them excel in their respective fields.

“They were all curious and willing to follow those curiosities,” said Stewart.

A goal of the camp is to spark interest in STEM, said Champion. She wants young people to understand that pursuing science and technology can lead to career opportunities in fields such as cybersecurity, engineering, programming, computer science, advanced manufacturing and more.

Statistics show that an increased number of young people are joining STEM fields. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that STEM jobs will grow by 8 percent between 2017 and 2029. This is a higher growth rate than non-STEM jobs.

“We might have future Marine Corps Systems Command engineers here this week,” said Champion.

Stewart expressed his excitement for the potential of today’s youth and the future of STEM. He encouraged students to follow their interests, always stay curious and tap into their inner Leonardo da Vinci.

“The world needs technologists for tomorrow’s inventions,” said Stewart. “Your future awaits you.”


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