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Looking For Future Leaders In Technology

Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base put on an impressive show of skill and threw in a bit of fun for some 1200 school students who visited the base this month to check out military careers linked to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Never before in our nation’s history have we depended more on technology and the application of technology to win – not only in the air – but in space and in cyber space,” said MacDill Commander Col. April Vogel. “You know our mission is to fly, fight and win. So, we need to create people who can do that. And there are some amazing young minds here today which is why this is so special.”

Set up throughout a cavernous aircraft hangar were dozens of demonstrations and hands-on experiences. The teenagers could climb inside an aircraft cockpit, try on helmets and protective body gear or check out robots and rifles.

Monroe Middle School teacher Bradley Watson from Tampa had his students operating mini-drones.

Retired Master Sergeant Kevin Gunter brought 42 cadets from the Dunnellon High School Air Force Junior ROTC.

“We went over to where they pack the parachutes, the para commandos that jump into Raymond James Stadium,” Gunter said. “They got to get into a virtual simulator to see what it’s like to jump.”

The purpose of all the cool demos and in fact, the entire STEM day event was to connect kids to the science involved behind the military careers. And no one seemed to make that connection better than Air Force Technical Sergeant Steven Barber.

Dozens of students swarmed around Barber, who is the lead on MacDill’s SWAT Team, as he explained the successful approach to using a battering ram.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
A student tries his hand using a 40 pound battering ram to break through a steel door.

“The science comes from knowing how to use your entire body and learning to hit it flush. It’s all about leverage,” Barber said.

With the correct stance and leverage, a middle school student has as much chance of breaking down the black steel “practice door” as an 18-year-old JROTC cadet.

“There’s a fun side to it too, ‘Hey, I’m going to beat in a door,’” said Col. Pat Miller, a civil engineer and the support group commander for MacDill’s 6th Air Mobility Wing. “Really, it’s getting them to think ‘How’s this working?’ ‘Why can me, a 7-year-old, an 8-year-old, a 12-year-old pick this 40-pound object up and bust through that steel door?’ And maybe that sparks the curiosity side of the kids.”

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
A Coast Guard helicopter was one of the aircraft students got to explore during STEM Day at MacDill AFB.

One didn’t have to look beyond a Coast Guard helicopter parked on the tarmac to see the effectiveness of such events. That’s where Coast Guard helicopter pilot Justin Neal was supervising students as they climbed into the cockpit to take “selfies” with their cell phones.

“As a young child, I once sat in a helicopter and now I fly it,” Neal said.

Neal then posed for a new photograph with Middleton High School senior Carlos Martinez, a cadet Lt. Colonel with the Junior ROTC.

Martinez has already signed up for active-duty Air Force with plans on becoming an aircraft mechanic.

“The Air Force, they’re more focused on the education which is what I want and I want to be able to get my degrees and be able to finish and come out of the military with everything that I have,” Martinez said.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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