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Air Force lab on a mission to educate the next generation of scientists

Jeffery MacGillivray stands in the Anechoic Chamber at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base. He is discussing microwave technology in cruise missiles that can knock out electricity and communications during an attack. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The Air Force Research Lab is on the cutting edge of everything from space technology to developing microwave energy systems capable of disarming improvised explosive devices.

But agency leaders know that in order to continue that important work into the future, they need to invest in young people and come up with cool ways to get them interested in science.

So AFRL’s Tech Engagement Office comes up with innovative experiments.

Schoolchildren may see a 55-gallon drum filled with water implode during a demonstration by Outreach Branch Manager Oscar Martinez to illustrate the effects of a change in air pressure.

Or they’re shown – and encouraged to touch – a silver sphere to jolt their knowledge of how electrons react on satellites.

“Kids like hands-on experience,” said Matthew Fetrow, executive director of the Tech Engagement Office.

He highlighted those efforts during a recent Leadership New Mexico tour of the ARFL office at Innovate ABQ at the Lobo Rainforest Building.

AFRL’s outreach activities have also included schoolchildren and grown-ups getting a chance to write code for robots during an event open to the public called National Hour of Code Day also held at the Lobo Rainforest Building.

Fetrow said AFRL likes to give “showy” and classroom types of demonstrations to schoolchildren in the area.

The “Super STEM Saturday” event AFRL hosted in February at the Albuquerque Convention Center is an event where the “showy stuff” was on full display.

Kids were able to experience demonstrations with drones and rockets.

During classroom demonstrations, schoolchildren could be asked probing questions such as: “You saw the rocket launch, how do you think the satellite made it into orbit?”

The AFRL has hosted camps and other activities through La Luz Academy with activities geared toward fifth- through 12th-graders through a partnership with New Mexico Tech.

AFRL’s Tech Engagement Office program is trying to get students excited about careers in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, as part of its focus on workforce development with industry partners that may pay dividends down the road for AFRL’s work in developing space and defense technology at Kirtland Air Force Base.

Part of that effort, Fetrow said, is training educators to be able to teach STEM-related activities in the classroom.

Fetrow is concerned about the low number of computer science teachers in New Mexico and the fact that few students are taking Advance Placement computer science courses.

That was part of the idea behind a computer science camp held for teachers last year that was sponsored by AFRL, the University of New Mexico and the Computer Science Teachers Association.

Fetrow said 186 teachers participated in the camp. He said there are plans to hold the camp again this year.

AFRL has also provided 3-D printer training for Albuquerque Public Schools teachers.

“We have a makerspace on base,” Fetrow said. “A lot of schools are starting makerspaces with 3-D printers in all grade levels. And working with APS, we recognized not all of those teachers have the training in working with 3-D printers.”

AFRL provided training through a two-week event.

“In the second week, we actually brought in some kids for a makerspace camp where teachers taught them the skills they learned in the first week,” Fetrow said.

AFRL also recently hosted the second annual New Mexico Excellence in STEM Awards, also known as the STEMYS.

Sponsorships enabled AFRL to give out $16,000 in cash awards at the event.

“I think it’s important to recognize the excellent STEM work that’s being done,” Fetrow said. “Our honorees came from all over the state – Las Cruces, Roswell, Farmington, Los Alamos, Belen and of course, Albuquerque. There’s great work being done all over this place.”

The STEM education emphasis is only a small part of AFRL’s more than $600 million impact on the New Mexico economy a year.

About 2,000 people work on AFRL projects at Kirtland. Roughly half of those are federal employees, Fetrow said.

“Of that, a quarter are military,” he said. “About three-quarters are civilian workers.”

Full-time contractors make up the other half of the workforce. Fetrow said another 2,000 people work on AFRL projects in other parts of the state.

AFRL is the only Air Force group in the state that works on space technology. Fetrow said AFRL keeps track of more than 5,000 satellites and other objects orbiting the earth as part of its Space Vehicle Directive.

AFRL also works on developing technology to improve the satellites the Air Force sends into space.

AFRL’s other directive is the The Directed Energy Directorate. Its major focus is on microwave energy and lasers used for defense.

The AFRL has developed the CHAMPS system, a system that can be installed on cruise missiles that can knock out electrical and communication systems without creating collateral damage.

The AFRL also developed MAXPOWER, a vehicle that uses microwave energy to disarm IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.

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