At the start of a formal ceremony opening the STEM and Education Outreach Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground Tuesday morning, Chaplain Lt. Col Juan Crockett gave an invocation.
"Lord of science," Crockett said, "thousands of children will come here seeking truth. We pledge to use this center to guide and heal."
That message was reiterated as the ceremony outside Building 4508 at APG continued.
Dale Ormond, director of the Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), said the new center "changes the way children think of and regard science and engineering."
Ormond thanked the people who sought to establish the center, saying it has attracted students from across the country, including South Carolina and New Jersey.
The STEM Center's opening was "a great day for the state of Maryland and a great day for Aberdeen Proving Ground," Maj. Gen. Robert Ferrell, senior commander at Aberdeen Proving Ground and the commanding general at the Army's Communications-Electronics Command, said. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Ferrell said the center would not have been build without RDECOM, which he said "has been our quarterback, and this day is a real touchdown."
Ferrell noted that President Obama remarked recently that the country needs "a nationwide approach to STEM education."
"We are certainly doing that here," Ferrell said to applause, adding that leaders from APG had signed an educational partnership with Harford County Public Schools. Harford Community College also had representatives at Tuesday's ceremony.
"We're so glad to have some young leaders here today who have benefited from the STEM program," Ferrell said. "You truly are our guests of honor today."
First for APG
Jeff Singleton, director of laboratory management and educational outreach in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology, said he was "proud to be here to celebrate the opening of this facility," adding that it is the first facility at APG to be dedicated to STEM education.
Singleton introduced college students Amanda Weerasooriya, Shelby Bartram and Nicole Racine, who all took part in STEM programs at APG before college.
Racine, a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said she was "honored to be here the opening of the STEM Education Center."
"It's unique because it's a place where people can interact with scientists and engineering," Racine said.
Racine, a North Harford High School graduate from Whiteford, also spoke about her experiences at Aberdeen Proving Ground and how she was inspired to pursue a career in engineering, remembering her time in the Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science (GEMS) program at APG.
"When I got to GEMS, I was exposed to experiments and equipment I had never been exposed to before," Racine said, telling a story about being freaked out after viewing a spider's eyes with an electron microscope, which drew laughs from the audience.
"It was a great example of how GEMS sparked my interest in STEM," Racine said. "GEMS helped me realize what you can do with science and education."
Racine also spoke about her later activities in high school working with other programs, telling how she applied to a Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program her senior year of high school.
"The work was really overwhelming at first, but I learned to love the work," Racine said. She returned to APG this summer to work as a college qualified leader, continuing earlier work she had done with Kevlar vests.
"I myself had a role ensuring the safety of our soldiers," Racine said. "It inspired me to solidify a desire to study mechanical engineering."
As a college student, "it's easier for me to study for an exam when I know what I'm studying is applicable to real-life situations," Racine added. She narrated a story of being so frustrated with multiplication tables as a child that she swore they were "dumb" and would never use them as an adult, drawing laughter from the audience.
"I have engineering programs to thank for my journey and for that I'm forever grateful," Racine concluded. "I trust that [the STEM Center] will inspire many people to pursue an interest in science and engineering."
Near and far
After her remarks, Racine and APG officials posed for photographs in front of the center before Racine cut a yellow ribbon to symbolically open the center, which is already hosting summer programs for students.
Guided tours were brought in to view the programs and facilities, including various computer labs, machine shops, wet labs and chemistry labs as they were being used. Matt Keifert, who led the tours, estimated that about 85 percent of students in the programs came from within a 30-mile radius of APG, with the rest coming from across the country from as far as Utah.
Wyatt Jordan worked with Christina Corral as part of a program in one of the center's computer labs. The pair, both students at the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School, were working with small palm-sized robots known as PicoCrickets, writing programs to test sensors and produce colored lights, among other functions.
Jordan said working with robotics and computers through his summer program was fun and he hopes to purse a career in robotics.
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"I really enjoy using Raspberry Pi," Jordan said. "It's a small computer the size of a credit card."
Outside, Weerasooriya, an Army Research Laboratory intern and rising sophomore at the University of Maryland College Park majoring in bioengineering, reflected on her time in STEM programs.
"I've been involved with these programs since 2007," Weerasooriya, a 2012 graduate of the John Carroll School in Bel Air, said. "They definitely strengthened my interest in science, and I'm definitely staying with bioengineering. Before I would have never thought to do that."
Bartram, a biomedical engineering student at Western New England University and an intern at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, said the STEM Center "helps kids realize what opportunities are out there."
"I had no idea what areas I could be involved in," Bertram, a 2012 graduate of Perryville High School, said. "I had no idea engineering was such an important area."
Racine said the facilities in the STEM Center will offer high school students "a great opportunity to experience."
"It's something [students] can't have in high school," Racine said. "You're not really exposed to hands-on laboratory work like that."