STEM like a girl

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

As part of the installation’s diamond anniversary goals to better extend STEM education opportunities, Tinker hosted 40 girls in its first STEM Girls Camp, “STEM Like a Girl.” On Jan. 28 the camp, which targeted young girls in grades six, seven and eight, included teambuilding and STEM activities, testimonies from 72nd Air Base Wing Commander Col. Stephanie Wilson, 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Kristen Thompson, and a static display tour of an E-3 aircraft from the 552nd Air Control Wing.

At the Youth Center, girls were welcomed by base leadership before dispersing into their respective groups. Among the eight groups were active duty and civilian mentors who helped guide their mentees through various activities.

Colonel Wilson offered words of encouragement in sharing her personal experiences. Trained as an electrical engineer, the colonel spoke to the benefits of taking advantage of STEM opportunities and how they can impact not only your life, but your future and the world around you. She also emphasized the importance in pushing yourself, always striving to be better.

As an adolescent, the colonel recalled having an aptitude for math and science, but she said no one truly told her that you can take what interests you and turn it into a career, that you could go to college and learn engineering.

“I didn’t ask those questions,” Colonel Wilson admitted. “But I wasn’t encouraged. I want to encourage each of you, and tell you that you can do it.”

Somewhere along the way, the commander said, she got the idea that she could do anything. And while no one openly nurtured that idea, she clung to it her entire life – and still clings to it today. It’s not a matter of doing anything and everything better than someone else, but rather doing anything and everything to live up to your potential.

“Don’t limit yourselves,” she said. “We are often our greatest limiters, keeping ourselves from reaching our full potential.”

Colonel Wilson also spoke to the opportunities STEM can lead to, citing her personal testimony of her career in the Air Force. Entering the military as an electrical engineer and migrating on to become a general engineer, working on roofs, roads, runways and the like, she said her career would undoubtedly be different had she not exploited those opportunities. Being able to take the foundation of solving problems, she explained, and building upon that, has led the commander to play an integral role in major projects. Her most noteworthy and memorable included building an air traffic control tower in Afghanistan and deploying into the area of responsibility immediately after 9/11 to install tents, water systems and electrical systems to help the war effort.

“Believe in yourself, work hard and take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way,” Colonel Wilson advised. “You are going to do great things and they matter. Each of you, you matter.”

In addition to words from the installation commander, STEM girls also enjoyed learning about Lt. Col. Thompson’s career as a squadron commander and pilot within the 552nd, and how her STEM background has equipped her with the tools to succeed.

As an E-3 AWACS instructor pilot with more than 3,500 hours, Colonel Thompson’s primary duties are to fly and employ the E-3 AWACS in support of our elected leaders and combatant commanders. As an experienced aircraft commander and senior pilot, she enjoys taking care of her Airmen and teaching them how to fly. In addition to being an E-3 pilot, she is also a squadron commander charged with managing a unit of approximately 250 personnel that she trains and equips to deploy all over the world.

Sparking interest within her audience, Colonel Thompson explained some of the intricacies of her day-to-day routine and how she engaged in STEM subjects at a young age which has allowed her to excel in her Air Force flying career.

For example, she described how exciting it is to perform aerial refueling. “Aerial refueling allows our aircraft to fly within 10 feet of another aircraft.

We connect to the refueling boom flown from the back of a tanker to get gas and therefore increase our ability to fly longer without having to land and get more gas,” the colonel said. “We train our aircrew to apply STEM skills to make sure we can find those tankers in the sky, meet our predetermined timing for linking up, and then skillfully control our advanced aircraft systems to complete the mission.

The E-3 has complicated on-board systems and to control them takes a high level of STEM skills to make sure they work properly.”

Being able to work alongside operators that possess unique STEM skills plus a wide range of specialty training and experiences is something the colonel considers to be special.

As with the installation commander, when Colonel Thompson shared some of her career highlights the campers were enamored and were audibly exchanging jaw-dropping gasps and slews of “that’s awesome!”

The pilot shared two of her most memorable moments. First, being chosen to go down to Uruguay last year with her squadron to help provide airborne early warning and overwatch for then-President Obama and the Argentine president. Second, what she described as one of the “top highlights” of her career, Colonel Thompson flew the very first NATO E-3 mission in support of Operation Afghan Assist. At the conclusion of that mission, she was the first to land an E-3 in Afghanistan in 2011. “Some of my NATO counterparts were surprised that a female was picked to lead that mission, but I was the most experienced, I was supremely confident in my abilities and I knew I had been trained very well,” she said. “That first mission and landing was challenging because I had nine different nations on board the jet with me, but we collectively used our STEM skills to successfully complete that mission, land in Afghanistan, and do something historic on behalf of NATO and the command and control mission.”

Colonel Thompson acknowledged the magnitude her experiences have provided her with, but she also admitted that all of the incredible opportunities that have come her way are because of her strong STEM background and extensive STEM training.

She left the malleable minds with this life lesson, “if you work hard, study hard and have a good attitude, you will go very far. People will respect you, they will want to work with you and they will want to work for you. People are going to want you to succeed and they will help you succeed if you have a good attitude and work hard, regardless of the field or career you pursue.”

Aside from the words from mentor-commanders, girls worked in teams to create weight suspensions and note launchers using materials like plastic straws, pipe cleaners, tape, rubber bands, paperclips and spoons. Feeding their creative outlets and collaborative efforts allowed different teammates to initiate leadership skills through direction as well as others funneling innovation through designs. Another big takeaway? All girls were engaged and motivated, encouraging one another and always bringing new ideas to the table.

Before the day came to an end, the girls were able to address a panel which included Colonel Thompson, guest Dr. Stacey Clettenberg with the University of Oklahoma OUTREACH, Oklahoma state Senator Anastasia Pittman and Capt. Alyson Goolsby. An opportunity which was fully taken advantage of, the campers had the chance to ask questions one-on-one and seek further guidance from the esteemed mentors. The hope was to spark an interest in STEM, and to inspire the younger generations to not get distracted with interferences and hindrances that could keep them from unleashing their potential.

Capt. Ashley, an analyst with the 552nd Operational Support Squadron, spearheaded the event after Colonel Wilson suggested offering a STEM camp strictly for young girls. With a bachelor’s degree in math and a master’s degree in industrial engineering, the captain is no stranger to STEM education outreach. She said an understanding of the significance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at a young age is proving to be critical for their development and choice of career.

“We started planning in November, so we had a little less than two months to get everything organized,” Captain Ashley said. Their target goal was to have 40 girls attend the camp, and in its first year, they achieved just that. “I think the first STEM Like a Girl camp was successful, and now we can build on that and continue to improve upon things going forward.”