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STEM Academy builds Career STREAM Program to bring positive change in STEM workforce

  • Published
  • By Santana Ortiz

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N. M. (AFRL) -The National Defense Education Program awarded funding to the Air Force Research Laboratory’s STEM Academy to bring life to a program that hopes to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering and math workforce.
The NDEP is a DOD-funded organization that provides assistance and opportunities for organizations with DOD ties to conduct innovative endeavors that promote the growth of STEM and biotechnology education.
“We wanted to bring students that grew up in rural parts of New Mexico — who maybe thought that college wasn’t for them — onto college campuses,” STEM Academy Director Ronda Cole-Harmon said. “We wanted them to see that, ‘Wow, these are people just like me. They come from families like mine. They’ve had struggles similar to what I’ve had.’ It’s a matter of reaching into the untapped pool of the STEM workforce and showing them that they have a place here too.”
In November 2020 NDEP sent out an internal call for funding to government organizations. The call offered up to three years of funding with the goal of building the future workforce with a focus on highlighting DOD modernization priorities. The AFRL STEM outreach program, STEM Academy, sent out a bid to build their Career STREAM Program, which provides a curriculum that combines science, technology, reading & writing, engineering, art and math. After vetting and review against other competing national organizations, STEM Academy received the award.
“We wanted to complete the puzzle of STEM outreach that STEM Academy has been building — we have great programs for elementary age students, but we wanted to fill the missing piece for high-school-age students,” Cole-Harmon said.
The program will not only teach students basic STEM tools to use while working on their projects, but it will also implement project management tools to give participants a feel for what they will see when they enter the workforce. Students will use a program management system to accomplish tasks and meet deliverables.
Cole-Harmon and her team have set up regional sites — at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and the University of New Mexico — where high school students can work with collegiate mentors on a STEM-related project to collaboratively research and develop an innovative idea, all while earning a paycheck.
With all of the steps taken to ensure participants are offered the tools to develop their STEM skill sets, this then poses the question: how will the Career STREAM Program add diversity to the STEM workforce?
“If we really want to build workforce diversity, we need to find a way to attract diverse candidates to this program,” Cole-Harmon said.
The team at STEM Academy built a marketing strategy tailored to reach students that were of a minority background, that possessed ties to STEM skill sets that they may have not previously realized.
All student apprentices belonged to at least one of the following categories: race and ethnic minorities historically underrepresented in STEM, military-connected, students with disabilities, female learners, first-generation college students, students with English as a second language and students in rural or other Federal targeted outreach schools, such as Title 1 or high-need school district.
Students chosen for the program will get to see how they fit into STEM careers and understand how their cultural and everyday problem-solving experiences can serve as a foundation for their future success.
Four projects were chosen and fleshed out by mentors for the Career STREAM teams to work on: building a cube satellite, creating a portable farming system and growing plants on Mars’ harsh, rocky surface.
“A lot of the projects are concepts that have been studied before, but we want our team to learn that it’s the fundamental questions that can lead to revolutionary answers,” Cole-Harmon said. “Understanding it’s the innovation and creativity that you bring to the scene that can solve a problem that has been plaguing us for a long time.”
The projects will be staffed by culture and career mentors, mentors and apprentices. Each had their own specific roles and responsibilities related to the success of the project and the overall program goals.
“Culture and career mentors are doing things like helping to develop a sense of professional identity,” Cole-Harmon said. “Cultivating the mindset that, ‘as a high school student, I belong on a college campus,’ or ‘as a student from an underrepresented group, I belong in STEM.’ They also help to find ways to connect them with student groups and support networks to help students through the difficult times.”
Along with teaching students about how to succeed in STEM careers, the teams will be showing apprentices how to find resources to help them reach their goals, despite the hardships they may encounter along the way.
“We want to show students that there are resources to help them succeed in this realm,” There are support groups for underrepresented communities, and there are scholarships to help fund your dreams,” Cole-Harmon said.
Culture and career mentors will also introduce guests that may help ignite perseverance based on their own successful and similar journeys. Cole-Harmon believes students should be given tools as well as inspiration for success.
“There are some really compelling stories of scientists and engineers that have faced setbacks and tribulations getting to where they are today,” Cole-Harmon said. “We want students to know that their journey to success doesn’t have to be a straight line. The detours in life are enriching and often make you a better person when you reach what it is you turn out to be.”
The Career STREAM project is a paid program that began in June 2021 and ends in August 2021.
“It’s cool to have a program that is nationally recognized here in New Mexico,” Cole-Harmon said. “We’re blazing trails and with that comes mistakes and learning great things — hopefully we’ll be building something that is useful to students now and in the future.”
Meet the Mentors:

The following are quotes from the collegiate students taking part in the Career STREAM Program to further not only their own STEM careers but that of their apprentices as well.
“This program is astoundingly useful for the future of STEM. These apprentices, these innovators and creators, are the future of STEM. We're just making sure they have their voices heard and they know that they have a place in whatever field they choose. The world is better off when they speak up, innovate and be creative.” — Alexandria Wiesel 
“STEM is a challenging community to feel comfortable in. Often, there is a constant feeling of not being ‘smart enough’ or ‘good enough’ to be a part of it. This is perpetuated when there is a lack of communication, making it seem as though you are the only one feeling that way. A program such as this reinforces the idea that anyone with a passion and a drive can make contributions in STEM, and [it] builds confidence in students who have perhaps been overlooked in the past.  The bigger and more connected the STEM community is, the more people are served, as students become leaders in fields at the forefront of technology and science.” — Karina Adam
“I want to help people. It’s a crucial and ethically driven part of my life. I grew up with various disadvantages in life, and, fortunately, I now have the opportunity to accomplish projects I never thought there were possible. This prospect has shown me that everyone can be successful in life, as long as we have a helping hand by our side.” — Carmin Vazquez
“Many students from various backgrounds have little-to-no experience with STEM academia, but they have plentiful experience with what is known as everyday STEM. Everyday STEM includes using a butter knife as a screwdriver or a skateboard as a dolly. These connections are crucial problem-solving abilities that STEM fields require, so embracing these aspects can help build a STEM foundation for those who never thought they belonged.” — Daniel Berenger-Russell
“It is a common misconception that the STEM field is only for certain types of people. Programs like this make it known that STEM is for everyone. I imagine a future where the STEM field is composed of people of every background who are able to use their own life experiences to create a better world. I am confident that by the end of this program, each apprentice will not only have new STEM-related skill sets but will also have a new outlook on what STEM is and how anyone can do it.” — Frank Lora 
“Some days, I forget that STEM is so much more than my glowing computer screen. I’m here because I want to remind myself there is a bigger picture to engineering — we are literally shaping the future with our inventions and projects, and that is something to be excited about! I hope to instill this in my apprentices. The idea that yes, right now — maybe in high school — it seems like school is just busywork, but the amount of influence you can wield in life someday once all this busy work finishes will make the struggle well worth it.” — Ella Sinha
About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: