BLUE Episode 18 : Generation STEM

The Air Force has been known throughout its history for innovation and breaking barriers. But how do they keep that cutting-edge sharp? What’s the Air Force doing to maintain technological superiority and innovative ideas in the field of research and development? The answer may be in a fifth-grade classroom. “Our future depends on reaffirming America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation and that leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today, especially in math science technology and engineering. We have to admit we are right now being outpaced by our competitors…” In 2009 President Obama launched the “Educate to Innovate” initiative to get American students to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade. The Air Force particularly recognized the need for future talent in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, also known as STEM. That’s why they started focusing on ways to get kids interested in these fields early. Starbase is a Department of Defense program geared towards getting kids excited in STEM, aviation, and aerospace. We target fifth-grade students here. We do several lessons: we do Eggbert, which is where we put an egg in a cockpit of a shuttle, launch it from the ceiling down with with an actual egg have protected. So students get to work on that, they get to work on computer-aided design, they get to work on rocketry, Newton’s law, and several other great hands-on exciting STEM activities.” “I know that sometimes when I do science, other people can do things as well but make them unique and different from anything else.” Igniting that interest early has just the first step. The Air Force is also giving cadets at the US Air Force Academy the opportunity to continue to build on that foundation. In one of the programs they build real satellites. “The stuff that we do here will eventually show up on larger D-O-D satellites and payloads so from that standpoint the Air Force will definitely benefit from smaller research areas that are done here at USAFA, but also too from a scientific development standpoint we as cadets get that experience of actually working on the sideline, understanding the design process, the manufacturing, all the things that go into the mission architecture for a satellite.” “I knew I wanted to do astronautical engineering. That was just something I had my heart dead set on even before the Academy. That’s why i joined the avionics team. I wanted to build something and know that what I was doing was going to make a difference in the overall program. The first main mission of FalconSAT program is technology demonstration so we have experiments onboard that really all they’re doing is collecting scientific data but those can be adapted later on to use on other DoD missions because in the bigger more expensive satellite programs you can’t really put anything on those satellites that hasn’t flown in space before. So we provide that first step into space for a lot of these technologies so that they can be used on later programs and really keep our technological edge in space.” And making sure we maintain that technological edge here on earth are the researchers at Air Force Research Lab’s Munitions Directorate at Eglin Air Force Base. “One of the things that I think you see and we’re relatively a small group for what we do in comparison to the services, but one of these you see is as a high degree of creativity, innovation, and passion.” That creativity and passion is what sparked Dr. Janet Wolfson and her team to get innovative when the Air Force’s Space and Missile System Center came to them looking for ways to improve weapons technology, specifically the fusing component. “We have fused things traditionally the same way for the past 50 years and that is you take a thing in a can, and you go onto the flight line the last minute, you screw it in and tighten down, and you go. You have all these interfaces, you have all these challenges that you would love to design out, but that’s why it’s been done. That’s the way it’s always been done.” Not satisfied with following the status quo, she decided to propose something drastic. “And the question was, ‘Why does a fuse have to be where they are?’ ‘Can it be somewhere else?’ ‘Can we break– literally break that paradigm and put things and optimize locations?’ And it turns out we can and we have broken that paradigm and we are moving forward with separating the safety and arming architecture of the things that make sure that your hundred percent safe when you don’t want to go off and you’re 99.999 percent reliable when you do want to go off from the electronics to actually make it happen. And you can do a lot of things once you’ve broken the paradigm.” And changing the location point and changes when and how ammunition explodes, increasing its effectiveness. Another researcher with a seemingly outlandish idea is Dr. Rachel Abrahams. Her creativity and passion led her to develop a brand new metal compound. “There were several fundamental questions about a certain chemistry of steel called Eglin Steel, which was actually invented here.” Eglin Steel is a high-strength steel used to make penetrating weapons, like bunker busters, more capable of surviving a harsh penetration environment, but production was costly. “There’s a lot of money for that amount of performance so I thought to myself, ”You know, hey we’re always looking for stronger, tougher materials. Instead of looking at that, let’s look at the cost and see if we can reformulate these materials.'” Abrahams and her team were able to transform the new alloy AF 96 from just an idea and 2014 to reality today, already pouring nearly 750,000 pounds of material. This kind of development traditionally take ten, even 20 years. “The beauty of the lab here is that we really do have a little bit of freedom to think about the problems that we may see you know in everyday life, problems that are brought to us from the warfighter.” This new material will save the Air Force millions of dollars. Officials are even considering its use on military vehicles to protect them from IEDs. And producing it quicker means it could save countless lives sooner. The Air Force continues to invest in breakthrough ideas like these while continuing to invest in programs like STEM that will inspire the next generation of innovators in fields like energy, health, and national defense. “These young scientists and engineers teach us something beyond the specific topics that they’re exploring…” “The best thing about it is seeing the Rachael Abrahams and Janet Wolfsons, and some of the young, promising workforce coming through…” “They teach us to question assumptions, to wonder why something is the way it is and how we can make it better…” “Not very often can you say that like as an undergrad you’ve been involved in something that’s actually going to be used in the real world that can have the tangible effect on programs and systems down the line…” “And they remind us that there’s always something more to learn and try and discover to imagine. That it’s never too early or too late to create or discover something new.” “There aren’t that many books on what we do and how we do it and so you just need to find inspiration in the reasons behind it. Why we come to work, why we come here every day to do the things, to get that technology out, to look at the future…” “That’s why we love science. More than a school subject or the periodic table or properties waves…” “I can go to work every day knowing that I’m not there to simply make a profit for some big guy up in the big CEO I’m here to really support the Airmen.” “Keep exploring, keep dreaming, keep asking why, don’t sell for what you already know, never stop believing in the power of your ideas, your imagination, your hard work to change the world.”

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