Outside Hangar 1600 on the flight line at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., showy jets and stodgy workhorses alike were making low passes, showing off the range of aircraft at the Aerospace Valley Open House, Air Show, and STEM Expo.
But inside was a wonderland of experiences for those curious about science, the military, computers, aerospace, commercial space exploration, aviation’s history and future, flight testing, and how professionals in all those fields discovered their passion and navigated their career paths.
Billed as The Largest STEM Expo U.S. Air Force history, the show is a mix of flight simulators, robotics, virtual reality games, hands-on STEM experiments and crafts, static airplane displays, and meet-and-greets with aviation professionals.
All this was to interest young people in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics careers. The acronym is sometimes expanded to STEAM, which includes the arts.
STARBASE Edwards is the base’s branch of Department of Defense’s STARBASE educational program designed for kindergarten through 12th grade to improve the STEM knowledge and skills of underrepresented students, connect schools with employers and communities, and get students to investigate STEM careers.
According to STARBASE materials, “STEM jobs will grow eight percent between 2017 and 2029, a higher rate than non-STEM jobs,” but only “17 percent of U.S. high school graduates are prepared for college-level coursework in STEM majors.”
Statistics like that makes the case for involving students early, which was echoed by John Davis Jr, who works at the Johnson Space Center’s NASA Office of STEM Engagement, and flew out to support his colleagues at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards.
“It’s very important. Early exposure motivates students. We want to spark interest in STEM at a very young age and keep the fire lit,” Davis said. To that end, he was helping visitors make paper mockups of Apollo capsules, much simpler than the electrical circuit project to demonstrate NASA’s Maxwell X-57 electric plane further down the table.
The main hangar had more than 60 hands-on displays of static airplanes, rocketry, robotics, educational booths, flight simulators, virtual reality experiences, STEM experiments, and speakers meant to encourage interest in technology and math studies.
Students from grade five up to high school wandered in and out of the hangar to view aerial and static displays and pick up swag and information from booths. Various units of 412th Wing took part, including the medical, civil engineering, operations, security, support, maintenance and the Test Pilot School. Members of the 812th Aircraft Instrumentation and 812th Explosive Ordinance Disposal were involved as well.
Booths from aerospace leaders like Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and NASA, encouraged students to follow STEM-related careers, as did speakers like a test pilot, astronaut, engineer, software developer, technical directors, and Gen. Matthew Higer, commander of the 412th Test Wing.
Lancaster and Rosamond high schools put their robots through their paces to spur interest in the robotics teams, and other schools with booths were Antelope Valley Unified School District, Daisy Gibson Elementary STEAM, iLead Charter Schools, Antelope Valley College, Cal State Bakersfield, and Bakersfield College.
Jim Alich with the 412th Test Wing, along with Marcus Elmore, had long lines at the 812th Aircraft Instrumentation Test Squadron’s virtual reality and other simulators for the F-22 and F-16 at the STEM Expo. Excited students waited for their turn to experience piloting some cutting-edge planes.
“The virtual reality sims are the hook to get students interested in STEM. We look for something with eye appeal,” Alich said. Some of the units are small enough to take to classrooms and the Antelope Valley Salute to Youth, held at Edwards AFB. “The kids really love it,” Alich said.
Acton, Calif., eighth-grader Charlotte Hernandez was enthusiastic about piloting the F-22 simulator. “It was computerized, and it made it really interesting,” she said.
Active-duty Air Force personnel were not the only ones in uniform.
There was a large contingent of cadets from Edwards AFB Desert Junior Senior High School’s Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp. They seemed excited to tour the hangar and the flight line, exhibits and were serving as volunteers for all three days of the Aerospace Valley Air Show, Open House, and STEM Expo.
When asked what they enjoyed the most, an enthusiastic chorus of “The Thunderbirds!” went up from the group.
Cadet Hayden Crawford is a junior at Desert High, and hopes to attend Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, join the Air Force after college, and serve on active duty for eight years. His friend Cadet Reese Galloway said she’s not sure she wants a four-year degree.
“I’m interested in engineering. I like to tinker with stuff; that’s my interest,” said Galloway.
Both cadets were in the right place to investigate future careers, as the Expo highlighted speakers telling students “How I Made It.” Astronauts, engineers of every ilk, test pilots, computer specialists, technical directors, program managers, clinical pharmacists, and Air Force commanders took the stage to explain how they initially became interested in their field and what steps were necessary to get the role they have today.
Also in uniform were California Cadet Corp cadets from Porterville Military Academy, in Porterville, Calif. Showing off their khaki jackets were Cadets Pierce, Figueroa, and Manguia. Undaunted by the two-hour bus ride from Central California, the three were in high spirits. Their favorite part of the day was the air show, especially the bombing demonstrations.
The Air Force Research Lab booth was also popular with students. Christian Ruiz and Brett Wight were demonstrating the effects of liquid nitrogen on Gummy Bears and ping-pong balls. They would dip the gummy candy into the nitrogen, then put it in a plastic bag, and invite kids to smack the bag with a hammer.
The nitrogen freezes the candy into a glass-like substance that shatters when hit, to the delight of attendees. Freezing ping-pong balls make them spin crazily in a glass box, momentarily stop, then spin the other direction.
It wasn’t just a parlor trick because Ruiz and Wight explained the science involved, of course. The two said they use a lot of liquid nitrogen in their lab, and it comes to their facility by the truckload, as well as being piped in.
The crowd starting thinning out before the scheduled end of the STEM Expo, as some schools had to get their buses back before school ended to drive the regular routes. About 15,000 children applied to attend, but school bus driver shortages made it impossible for almost half that number.
Those who had to leave missed the final show of the team that opened the day — The USAF Thunderbirds precision flying team.