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Posted 1/17/2017

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By James D’Ambrosio, Public Affairs Specialist

In 2012, when Jean Lau, chief, Equal Employment Opportunity, was researching opportunities to promote women, minorities and individuals with disabilities one aspect of the EEO mission she came across a great deal of information discussing the importance of getting young people interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, and programs benefiting students across the country. Since the Army Corps of Engineers employs many professionals in science and engineering, she thought it would be a perfect fit.

STEM Career Day

Fast forward to 2017. The New York District partners with schools in New York City and New Jersey along with other academic institutions to introduce and promote career paths in STEM subjects. With events off site and at District headquarters in Lower Manhattan, workshops provide opportunities for students to directly interface with professionals in science and engineering. Recently, a group of 70 high school students attended STEM Career Day at the District, receiving a comprehensive workshop featuring staff volunteers presenting information and sharing career experiences.

U.S. Army Presentation

Capt. Sean Hutchinson, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (an hour north of New York City) and deputy resident engineer at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in N.J., spoke about his experiences at the Corp of Engineers’ air base in Thule, Greenland, 750 miles above the Arctic Circle. Capt. Hutchinson discussed one project building a new landing strip, noting that, “aircraft is their lifeline,” as they’re far from civilization. He also touched on his work at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (CERDEC) developing technology and engineering solutions for U.S. soldiers, noting, “how to make aircraft fly better.” He told students, “You want to set yourself up for college [academically].” Several students expressed interest in attending West Point; as a graduate, Capt. Hutchinson was well qualified to answer their questions

Information Technology (IT)            

The next speaker was Joshua Gaughen, interim chief, ACE-IT, and a 21-year Marine Corps veteran with a background in military communications. He told students, “A degree in engineering is a great place to start” for a career in information technology with the Corps. When asked what he enjoyed most about his work, Joshua said, “being able to lead the teams,” indicating he’s worked in “duty stations all over the world.” Mr. Gaughen also said a computer science degree is a good foundation for government work, along with IT certifications.

Construction Overview

Then Mike Rovi, chief, Engineering Divisions, with 36 years’ engineering experience, provided an overview of the District. He spoke of a “sense of accomplishment” and “taking ownership” of a building when a project is complete. One example was Fort Drum in Northern New York, where the Corps of Engineers built most of the expansive base for the 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry division that saw combat in World War II. In discussing the District’s emergency response mission, he said, “We have people right now helping in North Carolina from Hurricane Matthew.” When asked how many projects he’s completed during in his career, while he didn’t have an exact number, he noted $5 billion worth of construction. Part of his presentation included a slide depicting 17 different STEM occupations in the Corps of Engineers worldwide.

Flood Walls in New Jersey

Later, Kara Borzillo, a civil engineer, began with a discussion of her professional background, including five years’ experience at the Corps of Engineers and a degree from the Stevens Institute of Technology in N.J. Asked what her favorite subject was in school, she said, “I knew I was interested in math.” When a student quizzed her about computer programs, she said the ability to read C++ and HTML code was important. Ms. Borzillo spoke about projects involving levees in N.J. embankments built to prevent the overflow of a river explaining that an engineer has to take into account many variables to ensure a levee doesn’t fail. One aspect of her work involves inspections assessing recent and previously-completed projects for deficiencies telling students she’s inspected “A lot of houses near flood walls in N.J.”

Safety & Occupational Health

Abraham Portalatin, a seasoned Corps employee with a background in design, told students he’s responsible for employees getting to work safely. He said that “In the Corps of Engineers you can do a lot of different things,” adding, “it’s a very rewarding place to work.” Discussing his work in Safety and Occupational Health, he spoke about the dangers of offshore dredging, especially during winter when poor weather creates more challenges. In terms of career stability and remaining in demand, he advised students, “Whatever you do, let it be specialized,” noting his specialty is nuclear power plants.

Civil Engineering

A final presenter was Nathanael Wales, a civil engineer in the Planning Division. During a PowerPoint presentation he explained his work involves project planning, noting that “Before the Corps of Engineers builds any civil works project, it has to ensure the project costs less than the benefits it provides to the public, including reduced damages and flooding.” Explaining he excelled in math and science in high school, he spoke about erosion along the north shore of Long Island and a coastal-storm risk-reduction project on eastern Long Island.

Student Feedback

Students also provided feedback. One said the program “Allowed me to clear up my misconceptions of this company [the Corps] by explaining that this line of work was not exclusive to the U.S. Army,” adding, “explaining how to prepare now (academically) to set myself up for success in a STEM field.” Another student commented, “It [the program] was valuable because it helped me visualize a future through different career options.”

Looking Forward

The 2016 fiscal year was a busy one for New York’s STEM program, and 2017 looks much the same. Beyond what happens in any one program, getting more young people interested in STEM subjects and considering careers in the sciences is very important: both the nation and the Army Corps of Engineers needs professionals with these skills to meet future challenges.