Nov 8, 2011

Navy Notes 1: What you can learn aboard an aircraft carrier

In September, I was fortunate enough to tour and sleep on a Navy aircraft carrier (USS Carl Vinson) through the Educators to Sea (ETS) program. At my debriefing, I was asked to both share these real-life, large scale examples as I taught STEM to teachers and to let them know how the Navy can help them encourage children into STEM. This is the first installment in a series of posts based on my experience.
On the flight deck, readying for ops exercises

This story begins at the end when I was debriefed by the Minneapolis Navy Recruiting District's Executive Officer, Shannon Tolliver, and Education Specialist, Thomas Ninneman. When you are working with your STEM Certificate teachers, they asked, please let them know that we want to help them encourage children into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), especially engineering. (They certainly knew how to appeal to me!) Why? So many people on a ship interact with such sophisticated technology that having recruits who are STEM-competent makes their job easier. For example:
  • The seemingly rigorous rules about electronics on board make more sense for someone who understands about the power they draw. Crew are not allowed to have their own electronic devices like microwaves or hot pots because heating things up takes a lot of energy. However, electric clocks are also a no-no, more because they constantly draw electricity. So what do they use for their very rigorous schedule? I asked a crewman. Wind up or battery clocks, ma'am, he replied. 
  • Understanding how to better use and maintain technological equipment helps them keep the city-sized aircraft carrier running smoothly. With limited energy, food, and human resources, they depend on every person contributing all that he or she can. If something breaks down while at sea, it may be necessary to figure out an alternative solution, so understanding how the technological world works is a plus.
  • And if someone is incapacitated while at sea, another may need to step in and help out. Thus, thinking "outside the box" is needed by all hands which requires an understanding of the big picture and how each part fits into that larger scheme. Systems thinking is something honed in engineering.
While the Navy wants more recruits to be STEM-literate, these efforts, Tolliver explained, are also good for the nation. From recent research, he seems to be right: The 2007 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, emphasizes the importance for a STEM professional base for  economic growth and innovation. Most recently, a study from Georgetown's Center of Education and the Workforce indicates the need for a pipeline of people with STEM-competencies for both STEM positions as well as non-STEM jobs "such as health care management and professional and business services."

Please let teachers know, Tolliver said, that all of our local technical personnel are at their disposal for things like judging science fair or robotics competitions, or for more personal interactions like talking about how STEM is used in a variety of careers. They can come either in uniform or everyday clothes. After being on the ship, it occurred to me that the personnel could offer more than technical knowledge; they could provide models for those teens who might not have found motivation to focus their intellectual potentials.
CMC April Beldo explains inspection procedures

Before embarking on the ship, the briefing officer mentioned to our tour group: You will see young men and women who were in high school not so long ago now handling highly sophisticated equipment with a professionalism that would surprise you. The Command Master Chief (CMC) April Beldo would agree. She had an obvious sense of discipline as well as care for her crew, describing herself as "a high school principal of over 2000 energetic 18-24 year olds" with huge responsibilities to themselves and to each other.  Every rule has a reason, she helps them understand.

For example, one person told us of the tool check-in and check-out system. All tools must be accounted for when the crew returns because loose metal on the flight deck can wreak havoc on jet engines. One young man, however, could not find one of his tools. Care is taken to help the crew prioritize events, and he understood that it was better to confess a problem when it was small rather than hide it and allow it to become something big that could put a shipmate in harm's way. The operations were paused, and a search was done to find the tool. As a training exercise, the young man was put in charge of counting every tool in the crib for a couple of weeks, and he apparently never mislaid a tool on deck again.

Of course, some of the personnel learn their lesson so well, that it becomes a bit comic. A helicopter pilot told us one story of a young man who was blown off the deck while working. Helicopters are at the ready for such emergency, with a designated "swimmer" who jumps into the water to make first contact with the person overboard. In this instance, the swimmer got to the young man who was desperately trying to swim with his tool belt! He just couldn't let go of the extra weight. The swimmer finally convinced him that he wouldn't get in trouble because his tools would be accounted for -- at the bottom of the ocean, very much out of range of any operating jet engine. Some lessons are learned a bit too well, eh?

Future posts will cover STEM-on-a-large-scale, reflections on women in the Navy, and how using ASVAB test questions with women may reveal new ways of assessing the true potential of today's youth.