STEM Initiatives

  • Published
  • By Jerry Cormier
  • Airman Magazine

The Department of the Air Force’s need to accelerate technological development has been getting a great deal of attention, with leadership putting renewed focus on modernizing the Air and Space Forces.

The service’s Science and Technology Strategy for 2030 and beyond was released in 2019. Air Force Materiel Command is tasked with implementing the strategy. The Air Force Research Laboratory manages the lines of effort in the document. 

The strategy recognizes a “…rapidly growing China and resurgent Russia...” that “… aim to coerce their regional neighbors, undermine long-standing alliances, and displace American influence from critical regions around the globe.”

To counter that, and to recognize what Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall calls the “pacing challenge” with China, the strategy addresses the need for transformation of strategic capabilities driven by scientific and technological advances.

That goal requires the ability to recruit, develop and retain a high-quality military and civilian workforce, as called for in the National Defense Strategy

The Air Force is working toward building an officer corps with more advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. 

Part of the effort to forge a more scientific and technologically proficient uniformed force includes expanded opportunities to learn and apply knowledge.


“The Edison Grant is just, try something, It’s low risk, but it could potentially be a high payoff.”Capt. Kavi Muraleetharan, AFRL Developmental Engineer

The Edison Grant program provides funding for technical experts to do short-term engineering experiments. The goal is to build technical competence and instincts, while creating an Air Force-wide network.
 
Capt. Kavi Muraleetharan, a developmental engineer with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, received an Edison Grant in 2022.It gave him the opportunity to re-imagine engine design. “The Edison Grant is just, try something,” he said, “It’s low risk, but it could potentially be a high payoff.”



“Not only being able to work with people with diverse skillsets, but also being able to tackle a variety of different problems, big or small, has been awesome.”First Lt. Kevin Tran, Space Force Space Launch Engineer


Project Arc is another way the Department is helping uniformed scientists and engineers to gain experience while assisting units with solutions where they operate. It bridges the gap between technical experts and warfighters by sending engineers to operational locations to assist with technical problems.

Space Force Master Sgt. Vince Olshove, an engineer working at AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation, has been active in Project Arc. “It gives you freedom to get out there directly after user needs and requirements,” he said. “You go into a location, and you can literally walk in and say give me your top five challenges and let me get after them.” 

Space Force First Lt. Kevin Tran, a space launch engineer, has also worked with Project Arc.  He says the project is about tailoring solutions for a specific situation, something a geographically separated headquarters office can’t necessarily do. Tran adds working with the program has been the best experience of his career, “Not only being able to work with people with diverse skillsets, but also being able to tackle a variety of different problems, big or small, has been awesome.” 



“I want people to know there are resources for women to be successful as scientists…I want them to know that underrepresented minorities work in the Air Force…and they have great contributions to make.”Dr. Candice Hatcher-Solis, AFRL Research Biological Scientist

 
With an eye to growing the next generation of civilian scientists and engineers, the Department of the Air Force made history in January 2023 by sponsoring Howard University as its first university affiliated research center.  It is also the first in the Department of Defense that is associated with a historically Black college or university. The Department is making a five-year, $60 million commitment to the school to fund research, faculty, and students. 

“Historically Black colleges and universities graduate 30% of Black science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals in the United States, but receive less than .05% of Department of Defense research funding,” says Dr. Victoria Coleman, chief scientist of the Air Force.



“This is clear evidence that untapped potential to address National Security imperatives resides at historically Black colleges and universities but has been unavailable to the Department of Defense due to historical inequities.”
 


Dr. Candice Hatcher-Solis is a civilian research biological scientist with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing. She’s been recognized by the Black Engineer of the Year Awards with the Most Promising Scientist in Government Award, and more recently received the AFRL Science and Engineering Early Career Award. She says she loves the fact that research she is doing in the lab can fix near-term problems.

“Technology that I’m developing and working on could transition to the field in a few years,” Hatcher-Solis says. “I’m really passionate about research that promotes safety for the warfighter.”

She is also committed to creating opportunities for young people interested in a STEM career. “I am actively involved in mentoring; I have affiliate faculty positions at our local universities…I always take summer interns and I have graduate students.” She adds, “I want people to know there are resources for women to be successful as scientists…I want them to know that underrepresented minorities work in the Air Force…and they have great contributions to make.”

 
AIRMAN MAGAZINE