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Two professors invited aboard Naval aircraft carriers

Professor Yvonne Ng stands on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson in late September.
Professor Yvonne Ng stands on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson in late September.
Photo submitted.

Two professors from St. Catherine University were invited to stay aboard aircraft carriers operated by the U.S. Navy within the last year, through the Distinguished Visitors Educators at Sea program.

Tony Murphy, Ph.D., associate professor of education and executive director for the National Center for STEM Elementary Education, and Yvonne Ng, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, each participated in the Navy Recruiting Command Educators to Sea Embark program. The program, in an effort to increase awareness of the mission and service provided by the U.S. Navy, offers educators a chance to fly out to an aircraft carrier while the carrier is at sea and spend one night on the vessel.

Murphy visited the USS RONALD REAGAN, departing from the Naval Air Station North Island (NASNI) in San Diego, Calif., to land aboard the aircraft carrier.

“The military folks were starting to look at how they could get educators to really learn about what happens in the military on ships and so on, and the kind of skills that they’re looking for in students who will take on these roles and responsibilities,” said Murphy, who was among the first educators invited on board.

Murphy's visit to the aircraft carrier was eye opening, as he said it gave him a newfound respect for the men and women who serve in the U.S. Navy. Murphy said the environment aboard the aircraft carrier resembled that of a small village, calling for a range of professionals in everything from engineering to healthcare, in order to meet the needs of thousands of people through deployments up to six months long.

STEM on deck

Strong skills in math and science were critical to those aboard the carrier, as each launch and landing of an aircraft represented a significant risk for both pilots and sailors aboard the flight deck. Fighter jets and helicopters that weren’t able to make a landing the first time, missing three sets of catching lines, would circle back for another attempt.

NavyDeflector“These youth from 18 to 22 really knew what they were doing,” said Murphy. “They had to be cognizant of what they were doing at all times."

Witnessing everything from the launch exercises on the flight deck to the physical exertion required to live and work on board, Murphy took insight from the experience that he could relay to his students and colleagues at St. Kate’s. (Right, U.S. Navy personnel walk by a jet blast deflector aboard the USS CARL VINSON. Photo by Yvonne Ng.)

“You really have to know what something is like before you can critically think about it,” said Murphy. “You have to experience something of the reality of it.”

While Murphy completed his embark in November of last year, Ng completed her visit in late September 2011. Ng stayed aboard the USS CARL VINSON, which was also stationed off of NASNI in San Diego, Calif. 

Ng, who has experience working in engineering as well as teaching, said it was interesting to learn the ratio of students who apply to work aboard the aircraft carrier compared to those students who are actually accepted.

“Only about 25 percent qualify, and they take into account education, the ASVAB score, the civil record and their medical situation,” said Ng.

The aircraft carriers need to bring on students who are well-prepared in terms of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. Once these individuals are on board, their technical aptitude and engineering education expands, as they are entrusted with the operation of expensive pieces of military equipment in their daily work.

Advancing engineering education

Though experience in engineering is not hard to come by aboard an aircraft carrier, students must master concepts in STEM in higher education courses as well. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the need for engineers is projected to grow 7 to 13 percent in the next decade.

The National Center for STEM Elementary Education is helping to prepare for the projected growth by making STEM subjects accessible to key players in tomorrow’s workforce: teachers.

In the STEM graduate certificate program offered through the Center, teachers learn the fundamentals of engineering from both Ng, an experienced engineer, and Professor Lori Maxfield, a professor of education who has the theoretical knowledge required to communicate advanced concepts in the classroom.

Ng said this is Murphy’s magical formula.

"It’s the strength of a content expert working with an educational expert," she said. "We only have a certain amount of time; we only have a certain amount of resources; but the thing that we do have is our very sharp minds."

Through the short one-year program, Ng and Maxfield give educators the foundation they need to start bringing engineering to elementary students and building skills for a future engineering workforce at a young age.

'The few, the proud, the engineers'

Ng combats the steep engineering learning curve by bringing hands-on experience into the classroom. She partners with Maxfield, a professor of education, to deliver engineering lessons at an accelerated pace.

“One of the reasons that STEM teaching has not progressed is because in some places, in engineering in particular, we teach as we were taught,” said Ng. Because it largely came from the military, there might be this element of the boot camp mentality. If you look at any of the engineering traditional programs, it is like a boot camp.”

Engineering programs were initially designed to weed out under-performing students, making an already rigorous field more difficult. More science was incorporated into the curriculum over time to account for fields such as space, aeronautical and nuclear engineering, and because programs were designed to weed students out, there was no incentive for professors to teach engineering in a more accessible way.

“As a result, you combine this sort of weeding out process with this scientific aspect, and suddenly you start having a very narrow way of how engineering has to be done, and the attitude of ‘Well, maybe you just don’t have what it takes,’” said Ng. “‘The few, the proud, the engineers.’ They continued that kind of thinking and now we’re in a crisis.”

The National Center for STEM Elementary Education offers a STEM graduate certificate program for teachers, bucking the trend and making engineering concepts accessible. To learn more, visit the National Center for STEM Elementary Education.   

Below, a helicopter stands in the hangar aboard the USS CARL VINSON, an aircraft carrier of the U.S. Navy. Photo by Yvonne Ng.


Nov. 16, 2011 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Education, Faculty, Leadership, STEM