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Encouraging Young Students To Pursue STEM Careers
by Terri Moon Cronk, DOD News
November 30, 2021

Attracting young people to embrace education in STEM subjects ... science, technology, engineering and math ... and sparking their interest in STEM careers is critical to keeping the nation first in technology, DOD’s chief data officer said recently.

David Spirk took this message to Mitchell Elementary School in Tampa, Florida, for the annual "Great American Teach-In" and spoke to a class of third- and fifth-graders on November 16, 2021.

David Spirk, the Defense Department chief data officer, speaks virtually to children at Mitchell Elementary School in Tampa, Florida from the Pentagon, November 16, 2021. Spirk highlighted the importance of data management; artificial intelligence; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. (U.S. Defense Department photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders)
David Spirk, the Defense Department chief data officer, speaks virtually to children at Mitchell Elementary School in Tampa, Florida from the Pentagon, November 16, 2021. Spirk highlighted the importance of data management; artificial intelligence; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. (U.S. Defense Department photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders)

"One of the areas that I'm most excited about is helping teach the new generation that's coming behind us exactly how data can improve everything we do," he told the fifth-grade class where his son, Eli, is a student. Spirk, who connected with the students remotely from the Pentagon studio, told the class it’s vital for the DOD to become smart using its data in a better way to make faster and better decisions. Spirk also spoke to the third-grade class where his son, Hudson, is a student.

"What we try to do is talk about how we go from becoming data informed at the department, how we make sure we have our hands around an organized data set, so we can start deriving better business analytics and better decisions in our day-to-day operations," he said. "As we begin to become data informed, what we start to do is move to [being] data driven."

Spirk spoke to both classes about data analysis, algorithms and programming to write codes; and networks and the internet. When he asked the students if they had written any code, almost everyone raised their hands. Spirk said he found that exciting.

Spirk led the students in an experiment on collecting data by doing histograms: Each child had a bag of candies and a chart. They put the candies on the chart by color and totaled them by color and number of candies. Spirk interacted with the students as they relayed their results. Spirk’s sons took their classmates’ work home for the Thanksgiving break to compile the numbers and colors to present the totals to the classes as examples of data analysis.

"I'm always learning something new," he told the classes. "Data space is just a really fascinating place where somebody's inventing a new capability, a new technique. And, so, I spend a lot of time reading. I even go on to [online] classes because I need to stay as sharp as I can," he added about young STEM talent joining him in the workforce.

Spirk said the United States is a great nation. "We are the beacon of democracy, and we have freedoms that many people in this world don't necessarily get to enjoy. The reason that we have those is because we have people who, over the years, have spent a lot of time on science, technology, engineering and math education," he told the classes.

"STEM classes really are fun, and you get to do a lot of experiments. You get to find ways to leverage new ways to use data to prove results or invent something new," he added.

He also talked to the students about the importance of diversity and teamwork. "One thing we do have in America is our diversity. Like data, magic happens when you start bringing differences together, and you can imagine how to do new things better and old things better. A team works together and embraces everyone's awesome uniqueness," he said.

Fifth-grade teacher Deacon Jones said his students made direct connections to Spirk's talk because they do a STEM fair project every year. "They have to collect data for that, and that's an ongoing thing where they have multiple trials, so when they're able to connect what they're doing in class to real world events or actions by parents, it makes it more relevant. And, as a teacher, when things are relevant, we recognize that [the information] is going to stick and stay." Jones also noted that students as young as kindergartners learn about STEM at the school.

Jones was impressed with Spirk's comments about how learning should never stop. "I really appreciate the fact that he pushed the idea of being a lifelong learner," he said. "When you exit one grade level or if you graduate, you're not finished. We're always learning and growing because things are changing within the world around us."

Eli Spirk said he enjoyed his father's session. "You don't really expect to see your father show up in the middle of the school day and talk to you about what he does with some of the other kids in your class. It was a fun experience," he said.

Using Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of e-commerce giant Amazon as an example, the youngster noted, "He's really rich and had to be really smart to get there, but we have more chances and opportunities. Even though [he's] great now, [that] doesn't mean we can't get better than him."

When he grows up, Eli Spirk said he wants to be a professional sports player "or like my dad," he said. "I want to work with data."

Classmate Preston Cain is 11 and agreed that the session and experiment were fun to learn, and he said he likes to collect data. He also learned the importance of continuing to learn "even if you're not in school anymore," adding, "STEM is applied in so many aspects of the world." Preston said he wants to be a professional baseball player or an architect.

Children need to understand that the proliferation and the democratization of data information that has occurred since adults were children is unbelievable, Spirk said. "If there's something you don't know about but you're really curious about, you have an ability to go [to] online courses. And you can take those right now, oftentimes for free. You can learn and gain those skills on your own," he said, adding many ways exist today to gain knowledge and skills. "You just have to tell your parents, and they can find that virtually free capability. And I think that really is going to be important in the competition continuum with China as a pacing challenge," he added.

"What I really wanted them to take away is [that] data is the 'now' and the future and the importance of it (data) if we want to keep this great nation of ours safe and secure," Spirk said of his school teaching. "We really need to prioritize our focus on doubling down on those STEM classes and taking them seriously. [Students] have an ability to do that right now — to be the smartest kid in their class, to be the greatest nation on the planet and stay there. It's just going to take getting back to the basics."

U.S. Department of Defense

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