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HEIDELBERG, Germany — It was a precious hour of free time squeezed into a busy Tuesday of seminars intended to stretch their scientific minds.

But instead of lingering over lunch, students were in the hall tinkering with their robots.

Their attention was on a table-top maze, a wooden contraption with many turns, a steep ramp and a pathway littered with rocks. Their robots built from Lego kits would have to maneuver through to the end by Thursday.

There was no time to waste.

The second annual DODDS-Europe STEMposium may be heavy on learning, but it’s also a load of fun, say the student participants, about 90 of whom were camped out this week at a Heidelberg youth hostel, where labs, team meetings and presentations extended into the evenings.

“Who doesn’t like to build robots and mess around with them?” said Gabriel Orndorff, 14, a freshman at Wiesbaden High School. “It also furthers our thinking: We’re not just doing it one way but [looking] at how many different ways can you solve a problem.”

Divided into 15 engineering teams, students work together to solve a complex fictional problem based on a realistic scenario. What should they do about four wildfires raging in Europe during a prolonged period of drought and increased insect infestation and disease in the forest, similar to the situation in Colorado last summer, when the state experienced one of its worst fire seasons.

“Teams may say the fires are their main focus. Others may say the droughts,” said Wiesbaden High School engineering instructor Frank Pendzich. “Others may be focused on global warming as a problem to solve. We expect different solutions from different teams.”

In search of a solution, students spend the week in hands-on instructional seminars led by DODDS teachers and local German and U.S. military experts. They may design a fire hose nozzle with computer software and a 3-D printer; measure carbon dioxide levels in the air and track weather patterns; dissect the large lubber grasshopper; split hydrogen from oxygen in water to power a small fuel cell, or program a robot to summit a ramp and deliver a ping pong ball, simulating a robot that could evacuate humans from a wildfire to a safe hilltop for airlift.

Field trips to a nearby forest, a juice factory that uses biofuels, an observatory and a zoo, were to provide students with more problem-solving ideas.

The symposium reflects the greater emphasis Department of Defense Dependents Schools are placing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, driven by a White House initiative to encourage students to study those four disciplines, collectively known as STEM.

“We need to make this a priority to train an army of new teachers in these subject areas, and to make sure that all of us as a country are lifting up these subjects for the respect that they deserve,” President Barack Obama was quoted as saying in a news release from the Third Annual White House Science Fair last month.

Despite the current federal budget crunch, plans are to expand the STEM pilot program in Europe, launched in 2011-12, next school year, according to Faye Batey, DODDS-Europe instructional systems specialist for career and technical education. The widest offerings will be in gaming technology, with eight schools adding the curriculum that teaches concepts and requirements for developing computer games, and robotics engineering, which will expand to six more schools.

DODDS-Europe used special Defense Department funding for STEM-based learning activities to help pay for this year’s STEMposium, Batey said, dollars that will be parlayed into STEM education next year. The equipment purchased for the STEMposium will be used in the STEM classrooms, Batey said.

“We found a way to do it,” she said.

Students in ninth to 11th grades applied through their schools to participate in this year’s STEMposium, and applicants outnumbered available spaces, said Pendzich, underlying a growing interest among DODDS students in STEM.

“I thought it would be a good experience for the fields I’m interested in majoring in college,” said Claudia Howes, 15, a freshman at Aviano High School. “Math is my favorite subject and science is the practical application of math.”

Roughly half the participating students were girls; coordinators encouraged schools to give “young women and minorities,” groups underrepresented in STEM fields of study, broader consideration, Pendzich said.

Hannah Donovan, 16, a sophomore at Kaiserslautern High School with an interest in science and art, said she’s exceeded her own expectations. “When I came here, I thought that I was going to be surrounded by all these smart people” and feel lost, she said. That didn’t happen in her computer simulations seminar. The instructor “starts at Square One and builds it up slowly and gives you opportunities to learn it,” she said. “It’s really a hands-on experience, which is good for me, because I learn by doing.”

Pendzich hopes the STEMposium experience spurs students to pursue STEM courses. “For what challenges lie in the future, it’s going to become quite necessary” to train more engineers who can solve the world’s problems, he said. “I’m looking for big things from these kids later in life.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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