AFRL volunteers growing a LEGACY in materials science

  • Published
  • By Holly Jordan
  • AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- With paperclips, school glue, and a few metal scraps, AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate volunteers are helping to secure a brighter future for materials science research, one student at a time.

Scientists and engineers from throughout the directorate took time out of their work schedules this summer to participate in the AFRL LEGACY program.  LEGACY, which stands for Leadership Experience Growing Apprenticeships Committed to Youth, is an outreach program that focuses on under-represented or underserved students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

As part of the LEGACY program, students from the sixth through the tenth grades participate in one of five summer Craftsman camp events.  The camps introduce students to STEM through hands-on activities, team-building events, and personal interaction with professional researchers.  Although only in its first year, the program has already reached over 100 local students through the camps and apprenticeships for high school students.  LEGACY’s first college-aged students will be eligible for apprenticeships in 2018.

This summer, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate volunteers contributed to the effort through participation in the summer camps.  At these five-day events, three directorate volunteers shared their knowledge, experience, and unique activities with the students, actively engaging them and giving them a glimpse into the life of an Air Force researcher.

Materials researcher Dr. Joy Haley said she used a simple experiment to give the students an interactive introduction to her work in photonic materials. 

“I brought an experiment that allowed groups of two to mix their own chemicals and observe chemiluminescence.  We investigated what would happen to the intensity of light with different concentrations of mixtures,” she said.  

Haley said that although her work at AFRL does not specifically involve chemiluminescence, it was a good way to demonstrate and discuss the importance of light, what it can do in the realm of science, and how AFRL can use and manipulate light to perform functions on aircraft.  It also gave the students a hands-on learning opportunity.

Materials researcher Dr. Marie Cox teamed up with fellow researcher Katelun Wertz to demonstrate the basics of metals and metal fatigue.

“We did a demo on metals by fatiguing a paperclip and breaking it, comparing it to simply pulling on an unfatigued paperclip.  We also did a very basic heat treatment demo, where we overaged a metal and compared it to the same properly annealed material, showing that the very same metal can be affected by the amount of heat applied to it.”

Cox said the pair also helped the kids make a homemade slime made from glue, water, and detergent.  She said the students enjoyed learning a little bit about polymers through the hands-on experience of mixing their own concoctions.

“We want to get students excited about STEM careers at a young age,” said Justin Earley, LEGACY program manager. “Through the LEGACY camps, we’re hoping to find an overlooked special talent from the local community and guide them toward a career in STEM.”

Earley said he is especially encouraged by the number of female participants in this first year of the LEGACY program.  For the Craftsman camps, girls made up 35 of the 81 participants.  Overall, nearly 45 percent of the LEGACY program participants were female, half were minority students, and 76 percent were from schools under-represented in STEM.

For the RX volunteers, the outreach experience offers benefits for the scientific community as well as for the students themselves.  They see it was a way of enriching the future of materials science with fresh and diverse talent, while also getting an opportunity to support local youth.

“Outreach is important to me because it provides an opportunity to reach that one child who might in the long run decide that they want to be a scientist,” said Haley. 

Cox added that she sees the LEGACY program as a way to give back to a community that encouraged her to enter the field of engineering.

“One of the things that drew me into mechanical engineering undergrad studies was a summer camp I participated in at the University of Maryland.  So I felt like this was a nice way of giving back to something similar to what I had participated in.”

Earley said one of the goals of the LEGACY program is not only to instill in students an interest in STEM fields, but to grow them through the program.  Students can begin in the Craftsman camps, and then graduate to the Junior Apprentice level, where they can work in world-class laboratory environments and build personal relationships with mentors in their area of interest.  Starting in 2018, The Apprentice level will allow qualified college students to continue their laboratory work and engage in independent research opportunities.

“We want to see students come back year after year and build their careers through the LEGACY program,” said Earley.  “LEGACY is mentor-driven. We can’t function without quality volunteers for our camps and quality mentors to groom our students in the labs.  The more mentors and volunteers we have, the more opportunities we can provide to our students.”

The Materials and Manufacturing Directorate has already taken a big step toward extending its involvement into the LEGACY apprenticeships next year.  Materials Integrity Branch Chief Segrid Harris recently committed to accepting six LEGACY interns within her branch in 2018.

“When I looked at the camps and the progression to the Apprentice level, I saw that it was an action plan to meet our directorate’s goal to develop a more diverse workforce with multiple skillsets for Materials and Manufacturing.” Harris said, adding that she also appreciated the program’s reach to a broad range of students beyond only those at the top of the class. 

“Sometimes we miss great candidates because we’re only looking at students with a 4.0.  A 4.0 does not tell you everything about a person.” Harris said.  “That’s not where all your knowledge comes from. We’re looking for well-rounded student achievers.”

Harris said she hopes that by being one of the early sponsors of LEGACY Junior Apprenticeships, she will help these opportunities expand elsewhere in the directorate and throughout AFRL as well.

Earley said he is working with fellow LEGACY program manager Nicole Lange to expand the program to other locations, including Eglin Air Force Base.  He said talks are also in the works to meet with officials at Robins Air Force Base, and the Air Force Academy is being targeted as a potential participant as well. 

“Our goal is to provide opportunities to students who might not otherwise have one.  It is up to us to provide the opportunity, and up to the student to make the most of it.”