Celebrating National STEM Day: How WSP Bridges the Gap in STEM Education

November 8 is National STEM Day, making this month the perfect time to reflect on the crucial role that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics play in addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing our society.

“Most people don’t realize how dependent we are on technology. In terms of the major problems facing the country and the world, it’s technology-driven, and we’ll need technology to solve whatever happens next,” said Dr. Marla Geha, WSP board member and professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University. “STEM is going to save the world!”

In addition to finding technological solutions that meet the needs of our rapidly advancing society, scientists make discoveries that will improve our quality of life, engineers create new designs that benefit our daily lives, and all use math to analyze data and solve theoretical problems. Moreover, STEM subjects cultivate critical-thinking skills and help students problem-solve in a variety of disciplines and professional roles.

The need for talent in STEM-related fields has never been greater, and the demand is only expected to grow. Not only do jobs in this industry account for 5.9% of the fastest-growing occupations in the U.S., but STEM jobs are also anticipated to grow 15% by 2031 — an increase of nearly 800,000 jobs. Despite the demand, only 20% of high school graduates are prepared for college-level coursework in STEM majors, leading to a significant gap between open jobs and those that can fill them.

How WSP prepares veterans for STEM degrees

A 2017 National Science Foundation survey showed that of the 61 million college graduates in the U.S., nearly 3.7 million had served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces, and approximately 250,000 are currently serving — revealing that 6.1% of all college graduates are veterans or active military.

Dr. Geha said that veterans “bring tons” to both the STEM field and university campus culture. “Veterans bring maturity to the classroom and are able to realize that things can be hard at first, but you have to persevere. That’s certainly true in first-year math and science classes, which can be a chore to get through. The skills they have can be applied to the classroom, and veteran students tend to do quite well,” she said.

In 2022, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families found that WSP offers the only program of its kind dedicated to veterans with a national reach, providing targeted support for humanities and STEM degrees. Dr. Geha played a pivotal role in bringing the STEM curriculum to student veterans, having developed the WSP STEM course in 2015.

Today, veterans participating in a WSP STEM academic boot camp learn a variety of skills that help them successfully earn a bachelor’s degree in the field. The course structure consists of lectures, discussions, and more, including:

  • Lectures that replicate traditional large group classes that students will encounter covering one-dimensional motion, two-dimensional motion, Newton’s laws, and work and energy.
  • Recitation sections that guide students through problem-solving techniques required for college homework assignments, quizzes, and examinations.
  • Problem sets that build a student’s understanding of physical concepts and the mechanics of problem-solving.
  • Reading assignments that help prepare students for lectures and problem sets.
  • Research projects led by campus researchers that explore various scientific topics.

On the final day of STEM week, research groups present their research goals, methodology, and conclusions to staff and fellow WSP students. The collaborative approach is by design. “Science classes at university are not set up for students to do them alone,” said Dr. Geha. “Many veterans think they’re supposed to solve problems on their own, and we’re changing the expectation on when it’s okay to ask for assistance.”

WSP participants find the collaborative approach beneficial. “I appreciated the integration of modern STEM fundamentals in the form of programming, and I have faith that the foundation of familiarity provided will benefit my college experience,” said a Marine Corps veteran and WSP-University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign alumnus. “The use of group projects as a catalyst for learning these new skills was also appreciated.”

Kevin Schmid, an Army veteran who participated in WSP’s 2021 Winter Virtual STEM boot camp, agreed. “Our group worked through data sets focused on biology and consumer trends. I had a bit of coding experience before, but had never worked in a collaborative setting doing it. No prior knowledge was necessary, and we were all relatively capable practitioners by the end of the week.”

Moreover, WSP alumni who are interested in undergraduate science training and possibly post-graduate degrees also have the opportunity to apply for the Research Experience for Veteran Undergraduates (REVU) program brought to Yale University by Dr. Geha. REVU is an intense, nine-week summer program where enlisted veteran undergraduate students perform research in a STEM field of their interest and develop the skills necessary to become research scientists. It is the only program in the nation designed specifically for enlisted veterans in a university setting. Since the program’s inception in 2019, 18 veterans have participated in REVU after completing a WSP boot camp.

Christopher Connolly, an alumnus of the WSP-Texas A&M STEM boot camp, was a 2023 REVU fellow and said the program taught him how well-suited veterans are for careers in academic research. “As a fellow, I explored the exciting world of STEM research alongside some of the most impressive student-veterans I’ve ever met. Over the course of the program, I worked in Yale’s Intelligent Autonomy Lab, run by Dr. Ian Abraham,” said Chris. “Many of the skills veterans accrue from their time in service are extremely transferrable to lab environments. These skills range anywhere from soft skills, such as project management and communication, to more technical skills, such as data collection and troubleshooting.”

Christopher’s project involved developing a quadcopter drone that will serve as a research platform for exploration experiments. “As a former search and rescue professional, I was beyond thrilled to contribute to a project that will one day be used for search and rescue missions,” he said.

Change the world with STEM education

Veterans bring innumerable skills and knowledge to the STEM field, and the wealth of opportunities spans a vast array of industries, from space exploration to cybersecurity to modern medicine and beyond.

To anyone unsure if a career in STEM is a good fit, Dr. Geha encourages them to explore the possibilities and keep an open mind. “Just do it!” she said. “You’re not closing doors when getting a STEM degree; you’re opening them.”

Are you interested in learning more about WSP STEM academic boot camp and becoming a warrior-scholar? Learn more about the program and submit an interest form here.

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