K-12 University Center connection to AEOP sparked from passion, a grant and staff with a commitment to transformative change through STEM education

The K-12 University Center at RIT administers the Army Educational Outreach Program's apprenticeships and fellowships on behalf of the U.S. Army.

Representatives from the U.S. Army look at the K-12 University Center at Rochester Institute of Technology as a model in its relationship with apprenticeships and fellowships through the Army Educational Outreach Program. That’s due to the passion of staff who work to connect with and provide the best STEM opportunities possible for high school through postdoctoral individuals within the program, while also positively connecting with its partners.

“RIT staff exudes passion from the start from supporting our students and LPCs in all manners; to the quality materials, experiences and customer service they offer to all stakeholders; to their forward thinking and innovation to push AEOP and its partners into the future,” said Deputy AEOP Cooperative Agreement Manager Brian Leftridge. “Everyone understands the short-term and long-term goals of the program, recognizes strengths and where to ask for guidance among internal and external team members. The goals of the RIT K-12 center align perfectly to the goals of AEOP.”

Leftridge has been involved with AEOP for eight years through the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, and serves as the Army’s project manager for the AEOP apprenticeship and fellowship efforts with RIT and Army lab program coordinators.

AEOP Apprenticeships and Fellowships provide Army-funded opportunities for high school through postdoctoral individuals to work in paid experiences at labs across the country, with renowned scientists and engineers in STEM fields that complement their interests and areas of study. There is no commitment to join the military, and highlights the importance of civilian employees to the Department of Defense, working alongside their uniformed counterparts to benefit the country in innovation and research.

Statistics from the federal government said nearly 1 million non-uniformed civilians are employed by the DOD in 650 occupations and in 94 countries around the world. Those sites include laboratories and offices, medical centers, military installations, schools and more – supporting military branches to “protect the security” of the country in fields such as environmental management; intelligence; medical, health and wellness; science, technology, engineering and math; and more.

Not long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the K-12 center became the leading organization to administer apprenticeships for AEOP, thanks to a $14 million grant and a vision from Donna Burnette, executive director of the K-12 center. The five-year endowment is through the Army Materiel Command and administered by Battelle Memorial Institute. A year later, additional funding through the DOD’s National Defense Education Program was secured to create the fellowship program that expanded opportunities to graduate and postdoctoral individuals.

“I really believe the transformative change of opportunity is critical to bringing young people to STEM,” said Burnette. She came to the university in 2016 from Virginia Tech where she led AEOP’s first consortium.

Apprenticeships are meant for high school and undergraduate students, while fellowships are provided for graduate and postdoctoral individuals. Through all avenues of the program, participants are also able to apply for at least two DOD-funded scholarships – SMART and NDSEG – that not only provide funding for education, but allows students to work in DOD facilities, bases, installations and other centers providing direct support and work for projects that benefit the country and effect change. In many cases, those experiences lead to a fulltime job.

According to AEOP, SMART – or Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation scholarship-for-service program – creates a “highly skilled DOD STEM workforce that competes with the dynamic trends in technology and innovation to protect national security.” NDSEG, or National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate program, allows students to attend a U.S. institution of their choice to pursue a doctoral degree in supported STEM disciplines.

Both programs – apprenticeships and fellowships – are now housed through the K-12 center at RIT with a staff of seven that work with participants to assist in their STEM journeys. That staff includes three full time support employees in Assistant Director Heather Storti, and outreach specialists Kierra McInnis and Miranda Salsbery. Burnette is also the director of AEOP's apprenticeships and fellowships, and is credited with Director of Finance and Operations Jess Small, in bringing in the largest research grant in university history to help make the AEOP partnership possible.

“I’ve seen what AEOP effects have on individuals, as well as the effect it has system wide,” Burnette said. “When I came to RIT, I worked to make this a place where AEOP could proper, so RIT said, ‘go for it,’ and what that did was open up additional doors for us.”

One of those included a collaboration with the Army Cyber Institute at the United States Military Academy, also known as Army-West Point, as one of the first labs to provide hands-on opportunities for fellows involved in AEOP. With that also came a goal to provide the institute with RIT students studying cybersecurity.

“It made the partnership richer in that RIT is an asset that has an amazing student body, and helped us become a better and more valuable partner,” Burnette said. “With K-12, where our special sauce is, is in the additional services we provide and the fact that RIT is an institution of higher education verses a nonprofit. We’re not just check-cashing or in it for the recognition. What I really pushed for is the will to do more. That’s just who we are at the K-12 center and who we are at RIT – holistic and comprehensive educators.”

As AEOP Apprenticeships and Fellowships grow, participants not only get interactive, real-world opportunities that could lead to employment with the DOD, but are required to publish an abstract, which will be printed in AEOP’s new research journal. The journal is expected to go live after the New Year. Participants also have the chance to connect with mentors who have also gone through the program, which helps maintain and enhance successful experiences.


Recommended News