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Naval Air Force Atlantic nuclear-trained officer shares personal story, inspires students at ‘STEM Academy’

by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tatyana Freeman
26 July 2023 Capt. Kathryn Wijnaldum, the officer in charge of the surface propulsion mobile training team assigned to Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic (CNAL), spoke to students attending Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic’s summer science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) academy held at Tidewater Community College in Chesapeake, July 20.

Capt. Kathryn Wijnaldum, assigned to Naval Air Force Atlantic, speaks to children.
SLIDESHOW | 4 images | CNAL Capt. Speaks To STEM Students CHESAPEAKE, Va. (July 20, 2023)- Capt. Kathryn Wijnaldum, assigned to Naval Air Force Atlantic, speaks to children attending the Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic's science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) camp at Tidewater Community College. The camp is a part of NIWC's STEM outreach program that collaborates with academia, government organizations, local businesses, and professional organizations to increase STEM interest and literacy in the community and to provide a pipeline for future STEM talent. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tatyana Freeman)
“You are about to embark on a journey, and this Navy-sponsored program is showing you what the realm of possibility is for you if you decide to embark upon a STEM career,” said Wijnaldum. “Have you ever considered that you are the one that can be the next problem-solver, or the next innovator in a STEM career?”

Wijnaldum, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a qualified nuclear-trained surface warfare officer, spoke to the students attending the academy about her early exposure to STEM in middle and high school, her perseverance through the Naval Academy, and her current STEM job in the Navy.

“Being in a STEM profession, I have learned that I can solve problems on a different level,” said Wijnaldum. “In the Navy, I have the privilege to operate, and supervise the operation of, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier. Every aspect of our day-to-day activities [in the Navy] can be traced back to a foundation of math and science.”

While Wijnaldum works in one area of STEM, she encouraged the students attending, a mix of boys and girls in grades 6 through 10, to explore all of the opportunities a STEM career can offer.

“The STEM field is vast,” said Wijnaldum. “There are so many branches and there are no limits. You can be as creative as you want. It’s like a spider web, and if you’re creative enough, maybe you can invent a new realm.”

Wijnaldum also acknowledged the difficulty surrounding the STEM field, and offered advice to the students that wanted to eventually pursue a STEM career.

“STEM was not easy for me,” said Wijnaldum. “There were times in junior high school or high school, when I went to the Naval Academy, or when I went through the nuclear power training pipeline in the Navy, and it was hard. I had to dig my heels in, stay focused, put in a little extra time at work, or ask a teacher or a classmate for help. Then I just kept pressing. Don’t quit when it’s challenging, buckle down, press through, and you’ll surprise yourself.”

NIWC Atlantic has been hosting a summer STEM academy for over 10 years.

“We have a very strong STEM outreach program, and this is just part of it,” said Jerry Sekerak, a public affairs specialist for NIWC Atlantic and one of the volunteers for the STEM camp. “We have two STEM camps that run every summer. This one is four days and is for boys and girls in grades six through ten. Tomorrow, we have a one day, girls only day, for the same grade range.”

The camps consist of different speakers and hands-on activities that introduce students to as many areas of STEM as possible including designing and building miniature bridges with dry noodles, building and launching water bottle rockets, building a little computer, coding a basic robot, and learning organic science principles with substances like oobleck.

“Introducing these kids to the STEM field opens up a realm of possibilities they may not have been introduced to before, and shows them the many different directions they can go and things they can do with STEM,” said Sekerak. “If we can plant that seed now, hopefully they will develop an interest in these fields now or later on, and it will open opportunities for them in the future.”

While every student may not be interested in pursuing a career in the STEM field, Sekerak believes this camp can still be useful to them.

“STEM is everywhere, even in non-STEM career fields,” said Sekerak. “So even if they go on to pursue other career fields, they will at least have a background to draw from and understand when they encounter it.”

According to NIWC Atlantic’s website, the goal of the STEM outreach program is to collaborate with academia, government organizations, local businesses, and professional organizations to increase STEM interest and literacy in their communities, and to provide a pipeline for future STEM talent.

“This is near and dear to my heart because when I was a rising eighth grader, I attended a Navy-sponsored STEM camp,” said Wijnaldum. “Before that, I was very academically inclined, but I was secluded. I didn’t interact well with other people, but the camp exposed me to hands-on labs that showed me there was more to math and science than class, and I saw young people that made being smart seem cool. It was critical for me because that experience of participating in that camp helped me maintain my focus when I went to high school.”

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