PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- In an effort to foster the betterment of underserved minority middle and high school students, members of the Air Force Technical Applications Center here traveled to Georgia recently to serve as mentors at STEMversity.
Dr. Andrew Giminaro, a nuclear forensics analyst for the nuclear treaty monitoring center, led the team of AFTAC volunteers who provided expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math to the summer campers at Central Georgia Technical College in Milledgeville.
STEMversity is a non-profit seasonal program that provides state-of-the-art, hands-on STEM training to underrepresented youth through instructional laboratory experience. From blood spatter to DNA analysis, toxicology to nuclear forensics, the course covers a broad range of STEM-related themes and applications.
The training facility includes classroom, computer lab, and wet lab stations. Sessions are taught by skilled professionals with academic and field experience from various career areas within the STEM community.
A typical day at STEMversity starts with classroom instruction. Mentors give oral presentations about the experiments the students will be working on, and go over safety procedures, observation reporting and report preparation. A question-and-answer session is then conducted, similar to a college lecture seminar. Once the Q&A is complete, the students are broken up into smaller groups with two to three mentors to oversee the experiments and lab work while the students get to perform their activities.
Joining Giminaro were Staff Sgt. Samuel Carmichael and Stephanie Homitz, both technicians in AFTAC’s radiochemistry lab.
“We provided two days of hands-on instructions to 20 high school students from the surrounding area,” Giminaro said. “They were attentive and asked well-thought-out questions, but seemed a bit reserved at the beginning. It wasn’t until we began the contamination control exercise that we saw them come out of their shells and really start getting into it.”
The Air Force volunteers broke the group up into teams of four and each team was given a few minutes to figure out the best way to move five sponge balls coated in translucent powder from one beaker to another – all while taking precautions to avoid contamination.
“What the students didn’t know was the powder is fluorescent under ultraviolet light,” Homitz said. “After the five teams transferred their spheres, we turned the lights off and flipped on a black light to show them how effective their contamination control methods were. Many of them inadvertently cross-contaminated other surfaces and they were pretty blown away at how careful they thought they were until they saw the results under the black light.”
The AFTAC group also discussed how the treaty monitoring center applies STEM to its mission and what kind of scientific opportunities exists for those pursuing a career with the Air Force. They also explained how forensic science plays a significant role in how they monitor nuclear treaties.
Historically, science and math areas of study that have lacked diversity, but programs like STEMversity are aimed to achieve inclusiveness in these fields.
"There aren't many minorities getting into the STEM fields," said Darrell Davis, executive director and founder of STEMversity. "We're trying to get some of these kids to get interested in science and give them an opportunity through exploration and experience. Since the program started in 2014, what we have seen is if you give young adults an opportunity, they will learn. They will and they can learn."
Giminaro agreed with Davis.
“When I was 12 years old, I pursued the Atomic Energy Merit Badge with the Boy Scouts and almost 20 years later I have a career directly related to something I was exposed to at a young age. I hope that through volunteering, I can expose students to a world they didn’t know existed and maybe ignite a passion in them that may positively affect the course of their lives.”
He added, “It’s always exciting when we get to see kids employ their knowledge and skills in real-life laboratory settings.”
AFTAC’s involvement with STEMversity directly supports current Air Force diversity and inclusion initiatives outlined in the service’s Diversity Strategic Roadmap – an action plan developed by Headquarters Air Force’s Global Diversity Division at the Pentagon to provide guidance to Airmen on how to enhance institutional diversity in the Air Force and track its progress and success.