Local 7th to 12th grade students join Rescue Wing’s inaugural STEM camp

If you were at the 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach earlier this month, you’d have seen something unusual: students from grades 7 to 12 in gray T-shirts and sweaters that read “106th Rescue Wing DoD STEM” walking beside Air National Guard personnel in camouflage uniforms.

From responding to a hypothetical humanitarian crisis in Estonia to actively working on Air National Guard aircraft and executing a mission, the 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach became a classroom for a lucky group of students at the Air National Guard’s STEM camp.

Twenty-four students, all military dependents, learned how science, the practical application of technology, engineering and math are used by the military. The first ever Department of Defense STEM camp on the base went on for four days, from Aug. 3 to 6.

Colin Fitzgerald, 16, a junior at Mattituck High School, was one of five participants from the North Fork. He said the opportunity to explore the base was a huge draw. 

“I’ve been coming here for a long time, and today I saw new rooms and new buildings that I haven’t seen before,” Colin said. “When I’m here, I see the planes and stuff, but I never really see what goes into actually making those planes operate and the engineering portion of STEM and how that all plays into it.”

Luke Weir, 16, also a junior at Mattituck High School, said the STEM camp gave him insight into possible career paths he could take in the future.

“I’ve always found this place very interesting,” Luke said. “But as we’ve entered the STEM program, I’ve come across new aspects of the military and what jobs there are.”

On the first day, students were briefed on their mission, which required them to move equipment and personnel from New York to Estonia on a C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane. On their second day, they prepared the aircraft for the mission and simulated how to resolve a bird strike to one of the engines. The students focused on communication and control on the third day and, on the final day, participated in orientation flights aboard rescue aircraft and received certificates for graduating from the STEM camp.

106th Mission Support Group commander Col. Glyn Weir said they had been working for about a year on the STEM camp. He also said the program was made possible in part by a $3,000 grant from the Department of Defense STEM program. He said a team of 30 volunteers, including five staff members serving as facilitators, made the STEM camp possible.

“This is a unique approach on STEM and it gives [students] a unique look — it’s sort of almost a cradle to grave what we do here,” he said.

According to Col. Weir, this year’s STEM camp was only available to military dependents, and the goal is to “open it up to invite more local high school students to participate.” Next year he plans to have a mix of military dependents and local high school students.

“I imagine over the years, it’ll probably grow to something much bigger, but we’ll try to get one or two students per high school to bring us up to max capacity of somewhere between 30 and 40 [students],” Col. Weir said.

Joseph D’Esposito, the fabrication supervisor for the 106th Maintenance Squadron and a STEM camp instructor, said the students were all extremely curious and engaged in the classes.

“I saw a lot of good questions coming up throughout the different groups of how things really work,” he said. “They were really interested in the science and the works of how we were doing things and why it would work like that.”

The hope is that this program helps propel the 106th Rescue Wing to be a leader in Air National Guard STEM education by creating an environment that provides opportunities to motivate a diverse community of students. The organizers also hope to inspire the next generation of learners to meet the challenges of global society through innovation, collaboration and creative problem solving.

“It’s really all community outreach, giving the knowledge of what we do here as a small base on Long Island that not many people know about and the kind of role that we play when it comes to rescue or emergency services.” Mr. D’Esposito said.”To have that bridge gapped is pretty cool.”