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Army Educational Outreach Program

Courtesy AEOP

This past summer, faculty and staff at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of The University of Alabama System, once more partnered with the Army Educational Outreach Program (AEOP) to provide historically underrepresented students with hands-on experience in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

The mission of the AEOP is to sponsor students and teachers with the opportunity to experience STEM programs and attract future STEM talent to Department of Defense (DoD) careers. The primary goal is to develop a diverse and highly competent technical resource pool to strengthen the Army, DoD and the national workforce in support of the Defense Industry Base (DIB).

“We received 17-20 applications,” says Dr. Tanya Sysoeva, one of the UAH organizers of the event. “We spent quite some time interviewing the candidates we thought would benefit from the program the most.”

The connection with AEOP was made in conjunction with UAH’s Research or Creative Experience for Undergraduates (RCEU) Program, which works to provide research experiences for undergraduate students in all fields of study by fostering cooperation between students and researchers in a creative or scholarly project. This apprenticeship program funded by AEOP has been overseen by Dr. Bernhard Vogler, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, for seven years.

An additional program providing similar opportunities, the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP), is funded by the National Science Foundation and overseen on the UAH campus by Dr. Sharifa Love-Rutledge with assistance from Christopher Smith, the Diversity Initiatives Coordinator in the UAH Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI). Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, no students were able to participate in the High School Research component of LSAMP this year.

“The pandemic affected the applicant pool for both programs,” Smith explains. “In comparison to AEOP, LSAMP has more narrow eligibility requirements for participants. However, the aims of each program are the same, and in many cases the students work side-by-side with each other conducting research.”

During the AEOP-funded sessions, students learn directly under the guidance of a professional scientist or engineer serving as mentor to conduct hands-on research in a state-of-the-art facility.

The 2021 program events were organized by Dr. Vogler and Dr. Love-Rutledge with the Department of Chemistry; Dr. Sysoeva with the Department of Biological Sciences; Dr. Aubrey Beal with the Department of Electrical engineering; and Christopher Smith (ODEI).

“This was my first year participating in this outreach program!” says Dr. Sysoeva. “This year UAH had two Principal Investigators winning this opportunity to host the high school students, Dr. Vogler and I. We successfully recruited a couple of our colleagues to collaborate and to host more students than we could otherwise. Dr. Vogler has a lot of experience with this program. I certainly learned a lot from him, and it was so much easier to have prior years examples to guide the program development in 2021. I was excited to apply and receive the award to host AEOP students.”

In a summer rich with student research programs, UAH was able to provide AEOP high school students with a chance to work in teams with students from UAH programs such as RCEU, LSAMP, the Minority Graduate Students Association and the Life Sciences Graduate Students Association at lunches and through an informal meet-and-greet at the Biology Department, organized by Dr. Joseph Ng.

The chemistry sessions were led by Dr. Vogler and Dr. Love-Rutledge and included students Elizabeth Sierzego, Kamyah Love and Sydney Hur. The sessions in biology were guided by Dr. Zachary Culumber and Dr. Sysoeva and included students Medha Rudraraju, Victor Dunagan and Vaishali Ojha. A wide array of events and topics were covered, including:

  • A session on library resources and training provided by Michael Manasco, the Instructional Coordinator and Distance Learning Librarian/Lecturer at the M. Louis Salmon Library.
  • A tour of Hudson Alpha Institute of Biotechnology led by Michele Morris, the Workforce Development Lead and BioTrain Internship Director at Hudson Alpha.
  • A visit to the Alabama Supercomputer Center, provided by Dr. David Young and colleagues.
  • A demonstration of the UAH Severe Weather Institute - Radar & Lightning Laboratories (SWIRRL), a visit to the UAH Propulsion Research Center (PRC), the Driving Simulator, and the fish research facility in the Culumber Lab in the UAH Department of Biology.
  • A poster session showcasing the research projects completed by the AEOP apprentices over the course of five weeks.
  • Mentoring lunches with undergraduate LSAMP students and members of MGSA (Minority Graduate Student Association).
  • Remote session with Employees from BASF to discuss potential career choices in chemical industry.

“The UAH RCEU undergraduate students in Biology and Chemistry were interacting closely with the AEOP high school students,” says Dr. Sysoeva. “It felt like a good way for high school students to learn about the college experience first-hand and review their pre-application plans. We also had a few tours and meetings that included students from both programs, and it was nice to see the interactions and exchanges.”

The need for STEM literacy – the ability to understand and apply concepts from science, technology, engineering and mathematics to solve the U.S.’s most complex technical problems is growing exponentially. For over 50 years, the Army has supported a wide range of educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to meet an ever-growing need for highly qualified, STEM-literate technicians and skilled workers in advanced manufacturing, logistics, management and other technology-driven fields.

The programs ran for five weeks, beginning in June, with the students spending each weekday from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. immersed in hands-on research.

“There were a few virtual meetings due to the COVID-19 restrictions of some local employers,” Smith notes. “However, there were in-person meetings and even off-campus field trips.”

“A few activities, such as a visit of the local BASF plant, a production facility for catalysts that are used in cars, could not happen,” says Dr. Vogler. “But we got to do cybersecurity instead.”

In addition, each student earns an educational stipend in recognition of their work. “The students receive, in my opinion, a very generous stipend,” Dr. Vogler explains. “This gets paid directly to them.”

Dr. Sysoeva agrees. “The amount of the stipend at AEOP depends on the program length, and is very generous and similar to the research undergraduate stipend in prestigious programs like UAH RCEU.”

The work with the students was performed in the Materials Science Building (MSB), the Shelby Center and the Department of Electrical Engineering (ECC).

STEM careers are projected to continue to grow at a faster rate than non-STEM careers in the next decade, and the associated demand for a talented and skilled STEM workforce will only increase in coming years.