Michelle Pantoya is advancing her work from the U.S. Department of Energy, now focusing on the Office of Naval Research.
Texas Tech University's Michelle Pantoya, a professor and the J. W. Wright Regents Chair in Mechanical Engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, is expanding the Growing STEMs Consortium to fit the needs of the U.S. Department of the Navy with a three-year, $750,000 grant funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR).
She recently started a similar STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning program called “Growing STEMs Consortium: Training the Next Generation of Engineers for the DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration Workforce” through funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
The two programs leverage energetic material science and complement each other by training students using hands-on, active learning approaches with Department of the Navy (DON) and DOE mission-centric research.
Pantoya, who specializes in energetic materials and runs the Combustion Lab, said the solicitation from the ONR resonated with her because it focused more on how students become successful in STEM careers rather than the “next big technological discovery.”
“I started to think about the educational steps we take to train students to be successful workers in the future,” she said. “That's why this particular solicitation from the ONR really excited me. It gave me a chance not just to talk about the technical aspects of the scientific work, but to talk about the model we implement to prepare people to be successful in their future STEM careers. There's actually a science behind education practices that's not talked about heavily in the hard sciences. It's more like, ‘Oh look, we just invented the next new and great material for this application,' than, ‘How are we training the students to do that?' But the process is the key in an academic setting and is the focus of this program.
“There's a distinction there that has been, to me, undervalued. When I saw this solicitation, I realized the people writing it had placed value on that educational process. It allowed me the chance to really explore it in some depth, then talk about it in the proposal and develop an entire plan around the education process. Those plans are not unfamiliar to me; they're what I have been doing for several years with over a hundred students. So, it was really just capitalizing on what I already understood and putting it together in a coherent, systematic way.”
Any student wanting to apply to be part of the consortium needs to have an interest in the work done in the Navy and be eligible to work for a military lab in the future, Pantoya said. The Texas Tech faculty team will mentor students and develop their higher-level analytical skills by working with them on research projects in a laboratory setting.
Pantoya believes this consortium is vital to higher education and STEM fields in general.
“First and foremost, there is a lack of well-trained and prepared STEM employees who can work for the Navy and the federal government,” she said. “There are people retiring who have been in the business for more than 40 years who are beyond experts in the field of energetic materials, and they're leaving. Without that knowledge base, our country will be at a big disadvantage in the way we develop our nation's security technologies in the future.”
So, the need to train STEM people is paramount, Pantoya said. There also is a lack of skillsets focused on energetic materials and engineering in general. The consortium is filling this gap in human capital which will help the Navy and the U.S. progress in the future.
“Another gap is the need to create a diverse workplace, because different cultures within the U.S. naturally bring forward different perspectives on how to solve problems, and engineers, by their very nature, are problem-solvers,” Pantoya said. “Having a diverse workforce enables us to look at problems from diverse perspectives and produce creative engineering design strategies. This program fulfills both of those needs.”