Nearly 6,000 students get STEM exposure at Oceana Air Show

More than 5,000 fifth-graders coverged on Naval Air Station Oceana Friday for a STEM lab day. (Kate Mishkin/Southside Daily)
More than 5,000 fifth-graders coverged on Naval Air Station Oceana Friday for a STEM lab day. (Kate Mishkin/Southside Daily)

Before the fifth-graders from St. John’s Catholic church in Virginia Beach stepped onto Naval Air Station Oceana, they had decided they wanted to be doctors, teachers and NBA players.

But after hearing the roar of plane engines at the base, a few more want to become pilots.

“Oh my gosh, they were so excited,” said Dr. Terri Brodeur, a middle school math teacher and STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — coordinator at St. John’s.

Her 35 students only made up a small fraction of the nearly 6,000 fifth-graders who came out to the NAS Oceana Air Show STEM Lab Day Friday, Sept. 9 and left with an interest in careers in STEM and the Air Force.

The new program targeted mostly Virginia Beach City Public Schools, but also invited students from Norfolk and private schools — a welcome move, Brodeur said.

“We want to make sure private schools aren’t forgotten,” she said.

A lot of her students are familiar with the military — many have parents or relatives in the Air Force, and a lot of students had already seen the Blue Angels. But Friday’s free field trip provided a new perspective for the students, and gave them a chance to explore different futures. That’s not entirely new, either — her school’s developed a new STREAM program that includes arts and religion, including ocean-based classes and projects.

“These are good ways to get kids into STEM and asking questions,” she said. Allowing students to check out the various booths at the air show might help them develop an interest in those careers, she said. She emphasized the importance of thinking creatively and critically — a skill STEM classes can help hone.

That sentiment was echoed by Richard “Corky” Erie, who directed the air show. The idea to expose students to STEM came from a trip to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York. He came home inspired by STEM, and looking for ways to get students involved.

“Why can’t I do an outdoor lab?” he said.

But if the air show was the Superbowl, he said, hosting the fifth-graders was just the halftime show. The entire event involved the efforts of 1,500 people, and took 14 months to plan. Erie’s done this 12 times before, but this will be his last year directing the show.

For Erie, the real moment of excitement came when he saw the first school bus arrive. Until then, he’d only planned the event in a “vacuum,” he said.

“It’s physically happening now,” he said.

Throughout the day, students walked around the base playing with 3D printers and robots from Tidewater Community College. Students lined up to pedal a bicycle that powered electricity. Smaller children were pushed in strollers, wearing huge headphones to shield them against the blaring of planes. At the end of the day, students saw the Blue Angels, mouths agape as the planes weaved in and out in formation.

Beatrice Manlapaz, a 10th-grader at Princess Anne NJROTC came to the show thinking she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and join the Navy after high school. But after visiting a Coast Guard tent at the show, she’s reconsidering.

“I like that you’re in the ship, and the ship is in water,” she said. “Maybe I just like serving people.”

When Arrowhead Elementary School fifth-grader Dallis Radley showed up at the show, he knew he wanted to be a professional football player or a pilot.

Now, he’s leaning toward the latter.

“It’s just cool to see the base, and to see them in flight,” he said, pausing to cover his ears amid the roar of engines.

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