Air Force Academy STEM Club To Receive National Award

Cadet 1st Class Winston Sanks, U.S. Air Force Academy STEM outreach club, gives the thumbs up as he powers a rocket thruster at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Aug. 23, 2014. Cadets from the Academy conduct 20-25 STEM events each semester. Image Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/ Tech. Sgt. Jared Marquis

Cadet 1st Class Winston Sanks, U.S. Air Force Academy STEM outreach club, gives the thumbs up as he powers a rocket thruster at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Aug. 23, 2014. Cadets from the Academy conduct 20-25 STEM events each semester. Image Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/ Tech. Sgt. Jared Marquis

February 20, 2015 – The U.S. Air Force Academy’s largest, most active volunteer cadet club will receive national recognition March 28 for educating and inspiring regional students to consider scientific or technical careers. The Cadet STEM Club will receive the National Society of Black Engineer’s Golden Torch Award for Government Community Service.

The award honors cadet efforts during the past four years: growing the club from 30 members at its start in 2011 to 473, providing more than 6,000 hours of community outreach and attending more than 140 events across Colorado’s Front Range.

The STEM Club cadets have been to robotics competitions, judged science fairs, taught classes in schools and served as tour guides to the Academy’s 20 research centers and institutes.

The club focuses on underprivileged and at-risk school children in schools without many extracurricular activities designed to spark interest in the science and mathematics fields.

Cadet 1st Class Winston Sanks helped the Jack Swigert Academy in Colorado Springs obtain an audience with astronauts on the International Space Station last spring. The school has an 80-percent minority student body and 90 percent of the students are on the federal lunch program.

The students asked STEM Club cadets about astronautics, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, aeronautical, electrical and physics demonstrations.

“The students were shown that science can accomplish incredible feats,” Sanks said, “It is within their grasp to be the STEM movers and shakers of the future.”

This year, the cadets are traveling to Pueblo once a month to appear on the PBS TV show, Homework Hotline. They answer homework questions and give demonstrations for students who tune in for assistance with math and science.

They’ve also established hundreds of relationships with local educational organizations. The cadets reached more than 175,000 community members in the Pikes Peak region.

Two cadets plan to travel to the award ceremony in Anaheim, California, to receive the award.

The Golden Torch Awards recognize excellence among technical professionals, corporate, government and academic leaders, and university and pre-college students. The goal is to “illustrate the possibilities that can be cultivated through support and responsibilities,” according to the NSBE website.

The awards are critical for the NSBE, a national industry organization serving African-Americans in engineering and technology. The organization started the Golden Torch Awards in 1998 to highlight the “best and brightest in the industry.”

The Golden Torch Award isn’t the Cadet STEM Club’s first recognition. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics recognized the club as the outstanding STEM outreach program in the Rocky Mountain region last year. They’re up for the award again.

The STEM Club volunteers don’t receive extra credit from the Academy for their volunteer efforts. They do it because it gives them a chance to make a difference, said Capt. Monica Pickenpaugh, STEM Club officer-in-charge.

“It gives cadets the chance to have different opportunities, to change the way students see the world,” she said. “It’s a way to show kids that science isn’t just for nerds in lab coats and glasses. It’s relevant, important and exciting.”

For the cadets, it’s a chance to see themselves through eager, young eyes.

“Sometimes, the Academy is challenging and draining,” said Cadet 2nd Class Kaitlyn Sanborn, STEM Club president. “When you’re at a school these kids’ eyes just light up. You’re not much older than they are, and you’re in a military uniform. It makes them so excited to learn what you do.”

Sanborn participates in STEM as a way to serve the nation – even before she graduates.

“That’s why we’re all here,” she said, “to serve the nation. And this is service that’s so important to the future.”