BY RONDA BURNS
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
Eric Green, a retired engineer for NASA, is making it his business to ensure that youth in Brevard County are exposed to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers.
During a recent tour of his STEM lab with a youth drone club in Brevard County Public Schools, called the Whirly Girls, Green talks about his program, STEM Tech Neighborhood Academy, with hopes that it will inspire area youth and prepare them for careers at NASA and in the engineering field.
The program is located in a building on loan from the Brevard County Housing Authority. The students who attend the program have the opportunity to build robots, rockets, drones, work in a 12-station computer lab, and build items produced by four 3D printers.
They also will get a chance to construct a model solar-powered house and assemble Lego projects. These are just some of the many activities that occur in the lab. Green refers to the participants as “stemologists.’’
Green has a deep passion for this kind of activity. He has rallied the support of former colleagues and space engineers who are currently employed by NASA to assist him in fulfilling his dream of making sure that disadvantaged youth in Brevard are exposed to STEM programs.
The STEM program was birthed from the Space Coast Chapter of the National Technical Association.
“We were doing STEM long before the acronym became popular,’’ Green said.
The program has gone through several metamorphoses to get to this point. Green and Thomas want this monumental undertaking to engage the youth in all aspects of science and technology to prepare them for tomorrow’s high-tech jobs.
His solution during this COVID-19 pandemic is to provide Lego kits to the students. They can build tools, furniture for the solar powered dollhouse, robots and rockets just to name a few items.
“We need to keep these children engaged during this time,’’ he related.
4 years old and up
The program accepts children as young as 4 years of age up until college. However, they are not in the lab at the same time. Green sets schedules based on age groups, level of activity and knowledge.
The “stemologists’’ compete against students in other STEM programs throughout the country.
Green lights up when he talks about two students, Tristen Brice and Edwin Mercado, who competed in the Technology Student Association’s Solar Sprint race competition in
Atlanta during the summer of 2018.
They competed against the top 80 teams in the country and placed as the 18th top team. There were more than 4,000 in attendance for this national STEM event.
“This was an extraordinary performance for a rookie team,’’ Green said.
Their own spacesuits
Edwin and Tristen were accompanied by their STEM coaches, Mike Morrison, a scientist with NASA, and Darrell Thomas, a full-time NASA electrical engineer and technical advisor with the STEM Tech Neighborhood Academy.
During competitions, students in Green’s program wear uniforms that set them apart – they look like mini astronauts. They resemble spacesuits that the Kennedy Space Center engineers wear to complete their assignments.
Visitors to Green’s lab also are treated to an impressive video presentation that focuses on the students, what the STEM program offers, and includes a rocket launch demonstration performed by the children in their space uniforms.
Participants also have the opportunity to intern with NASA beginning at age 16. Many students have pursued degrees in engineering and have become very successful, a direct result of Green’s program.
“The program’s success is totally dependent upon the mothers, fathers and volunteers that dedicate their time and energy to the program,” Green noted.
Green is fascinated with rockets and worked on the team that launched the largest rocket in history, the Apollo. He also is the former president of the Space Coast Chapter of the National Technical Association, which started in 1982.
He related that he also had the opportunity to know Katherine Johnson, the renowned mathematician and notable character in the movie “Hidden Figures.’’ Green said he had direct interaction with her while he was president of the association.
Pop-up labs coming
Green is currently writing grants to buy vans that will go into the community neighborhoods and set up pop-up STEM labs for children who are unable to travel to the building.
“These are special vans that will be equipped with computers, rockets, and robots,’’ he said. The vans will be retrofitted to resemble mock space labs.