JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- For many years, various organizations and reports have sounded the alarm when it comes to the United States and its educational standing among other nations in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.
As each year passes, it seems American students fall lower and lower on the scale. Current data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has the U.S. listed 25th among nations in the area of math and 31st in the area of science. This concerns the Air Force, and U.S. government as a whole, so much that various organizations have been set up to help increase the nation's education level in STEM. These include the National Science Board, the Air Force STEM Outreach Coordination Office and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. According to the Air Force STEM office website, every job of the future will require a basic understanding of math and science. It also notes that innovations transform nations, creating new industries and occupations, and that advances in technology will have a meaningful impact on the lives of every American.
Because of the nature of its work, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center here has a large number of Airmen -- military, civilian and contractor -- with advanced education in the STEM disciplines. "We as a workforce of engineers, scientists and other professionals can't idly sit by and expect that our nation will produce enough STEM professionals to take over for us; we can't be complacent," said Joe Sciabica, the AFCEC director. "We need to mentor and encourage the next generation, where we can."
The AFCEC director is just one of many who see the importance of mentoring tomorrow's science and engineering experts by doing what they can to increase the curiosity and enthusiasm of today's youth. "In my readings, engineering graduates are a dying breed particularly in the United States," said Dennis Guadarrama, the AFCEC Installations Center of Excellence Real Property Management Division chief. "This concerns me and should concern all of us." Guadarrama, who has a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering and Master of Arts in both public administration and management, shows his concern in many ways but one that's most visible is mentoring through career days, science fairs and tutoring high school students at home. "I am honored to provide my services to those seeking assistance," he said. "A student's ah-ha moment is priceless ... that's what it's all about." Second Lt. William Page, an operations support officer in AFCEC's Operations Directorate, is another STEM professional who volunteers where he can to encourage young people to pursue STEM education. After having an interest in robots and science since childhood, Page, whose father was an electrical engineer, majored in civil engineering at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The young officer said he feels it's important to mentor youth and encourage them to pursue STEM disciplines. They are the future, Page said. By mentoring them at a young age we can bring their exuberance, talent and innovation to its utmost potential to solve the problems of tomorrow." Page has volunteered with the Boy Scouts to help them earn their engineering merit badge and currently volunteers as a referee for First Lego League Robotics Competitions in Florida. "I do it to help the kids gain an appreciation for STEM," he said, "and give them pointers on what to think about to solve a similar problem next time. I just hope to help the kids develop a greater interest in STEM, as well as to improve their critical thinking skills while having fun." Nemesio Garcia, a mechanical engineer and program manager in AFCEC's Facility Engineering Center of Excellence, was the first in his family to graduate from high school and the first to attend and graduate from college.
In his Hispanic culture, Garcia said education is mostly seen as an unachievable goal with the emphasis on finding a job at an early age to start to gain seniority in a company. In addition to overcoming this cultural expectation, to achieve his dream he said he also overcame the hurdles of starting school at a later age and having to leave early, low teacher and counselor expectations, and a feeling of hopelessness. Throughout his professional career, Garcia said he saw, and continues to see, many of the problems he encountered as a young man.
"The problems are still there," he said, "only the faces have changed. That's one of the reasons I decided that it's important for me to have a positive impact the best I can." Garcia's dedication to mentoring began about 30 years ago when he was teaching middle school students. He'd ask them what they wanted to be in the future, help them identify goals and over one week help the students map out a way to achieve them. "That class has produced medical doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers, city council members and mayors," he said. "I've kept in touch with them and they've told me how that one week was a significant event in their lives that still guides them now." Today, Garcia encourages students at every available opportunity as guest speaker at events, and at his church and martial arts classes. "I've counseled on trials and tribulations of life as I've experienced them, how to visualize goals to better outline your life and processes that can be used to attain goals and have a positive impact on your community," he said. All of these AFCEC members said they highly recommend everyone consider supporting STEM and school activities in their communities. "If we can show even one student that with passion and focus one can reach any goal, and in this case STEM disciplines, perhaps we can build some momentum," Guadarrama said. "As STEM professionals, we have a moral, ethical and God given responsibility to reach out to our community and bring out the best aspects of each and every individual," Garcia added. "It's up to us to plant a seed that will cause just one person to start thinking." NOTE: National Engineers Week is Feb. 17-23. During the annual commemoration, AFCEC reaches out to schools in the area to establish mentoring opportunities that can be fostered throughtout the year to encourage students to pursue STEM disciplines.