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NEWS | Feb. 12, 2016

Encouraging lowcountry technology leadership

By Capt. Scott Heller, commander Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic

Our nation's security is dependent on engineers and scientists with strong foundations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

As the commanding officer of an engineering command providing information warfare solutions for our Navy, Marine Corps and Joint team, I can bear witness to the need for STEM education. We, the Navy, are hiring the best and brightest we can find. We employ IT specialists, electronics engineers, computer scientists, electronics technicians and other STEM professionals to rapidly deliver and support cybersecurity, satellite systems, undersea surveillance equipment, cyber encryption, cyber surveillance, remote sensors, and tactical and business information technology capabilities.

It is projected more than 30 percent of current DoD science and technology professionals are likely to retire by 2020, highlighting the need for qualified U.S. citizens to do classified technology work. To help meet the need, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic is highly motivated to back STEM education and outreach.

Powered by dedicated volunteers (more than 400), SSC Atlantic's STEM Outreach program aims to increase, inspire and support the talent pool from which the next generation of great engineers, scientists and technologists will come.

It is estimated that only 33 percent of eighth graders today are interested in STEM majors and careers, only 18 percent of high school seniors are rated as science proficient and 33 percent as math proficient. Only six percent of high school seniors will get a bachelor's degree in a STEM field.

That's just not enough. So, much of our effort is focused on getting kids interested in STEM at an early age. Robotics, DimensionU, DoD Math Games, Girls' Day Out, Palmetto Cyber Defense Competition, National IT Shadow Day, career fairs, Palmetto Cyber Security Summer Camp and SeaPerch are getting kids excited about science and math, and providing activities to keep them interested through high school and into college.

And that's exactly the way it ought to be. Students should be encouraged to study those subjects instead of saying, "That's too hard" or "I can't do that." They ought to be encouraged not only to study STEM but to think about a future that requires science, engineering, math and technology as the tools to keep us strong.  Scientific innovation has produced roughly half of all U.S. economic growth over the past 50 years and today jobs requiring STEM skills are increasing four times faster than overall job growth.

SSC Atlantic's outreach effort impacts Charleston, Berkeley, Colleton and Dorchester 2 & 4 county schools, including 30 elementary schools, 28 middle schools, 18 high schools and eight magnet/progressive schools. SSC Atlantic sponsors and mentors 46 robotics teams and expended more than 9,400 volunteer hours in the STEM outreach effort last year.

In addition to school districts, we partner with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Lowcountry STEM Collaborative, Lowcountry Technical Academy, The Citadel's STEM Center of Excellence, College of Charleston, Trident Technical College, Society of Women Engineers, the S.C. Historically Black Colleges and Universities Consortium, Department of Energy, Charleston Chamber of Commerce, National Defense Education Program, the Office of Naval Research and businesses such as Boeing, Bosch and Google.

The metric for success is very simple, if we reach a broader audience of students through these STEM initiatives, we can inspire more students to stick with these STEM courses and commit themselves to major in some of these subjects in college. By doing so, we succeed in increasing the numbers who get their bachelor's degree,  go on to graduate school and stay here in the Lowcountry. That's what we're working toward.

Our country - one that has led in so many things, has been so innovative in science and technology, is known as a hotbed for research, innovation and discovery - deserves nothing less. Our warfighters - who depend on breakthrough technologies giving them the edge over their adversaries - deserve nothing less.

Every day, at SSC Atlantic, I get to see the amazing things our current crop of engineers, scientists and mathematicians create. Looking forward to what today's students will create makes me wish I was starting this journey all over again. We are truly blessed to have so many intelligent and hardworking young people in our midst. Our task is to remove barriers that slow their journey towards becoming our nation's next wave of technical leadership.