For more than two decades the Institute for Defense Analyses has worked with the Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) in tutoring, mentoring, and educating students through STEM events. Our goal is to develop and sustain an Educational Outreach program at IDA that takes particular advantage of IDA’s expertise and resources to aid students and teachers in ACPS – especially those with the greatest need for the types of contributions we are so well suited to provide.
IDA has provided tutoring in different ways throughout the years. Our current efforts are focused on the Minnie Howard campus of the Alexandria City High School. We assist their teachers in afterschool tutoring for about 30 students every Wednesday through a soccer club. The school offers an after school club with a coach and with prizes and snacks for the students - but in order to participate, they are required to receive tutoring. The program is run by a social worker who coordinates with students, their teachers, and also their parents.
“Science: Unrestricted” is an annual event hosted by IDA at our main Mark Center campus in Alexandria, Virginia. For more than a decade, we have partnered with the ACPS to coordinate, and execute the event. The school system supplies buses to transport students and parents to and from their homes and the event at IDA.
The purpose of the event is not to turn every student into a professional scientist or engineer (although that would be a great outcome), but to help students understand
- that science is an ubiquitous part of the human experience, relevant to almost everything we do,
- that science can help them in their everyday lives – as citizens - to the extent they understand it,
- that it’s interesting and important,
- that it’s something they themselves can do and even excel at,
- and, yes, that it’s an exciting career choice that is in the realm of possibility to anyone willing to do the work.
We want to provide an event that
- encourages kids to discuss scientific subjects with each other – their peers,
- prompts discussions and questions with their teachers,
- initiates discussions about science and STEM with their parents and other family,
- provides some initial ideas about subject areas they may want to pursue for personal or eventually professional expertise.
We typically have about a dozen exhibits put on by interested members from our own staff, invited government agencies and nonprofits, and a few students from the ACPS school system. We’re limited to 12-15 stations (exhibits), roughly half presented by IDA staff and the other half by invited groups. We strongly emphasize hands-on exhibits. Although the age range is kindergarten through 12, most of the students are in the 4th through 8th grade range.
IDA staff members have produced many excellent exhibits over the years: an exhibition bee hive, model rocketry, numerous exhibits on topics related to energy and magnetism, and even a home-made telescope. Alexandria City High School students from ACPS often exhibit robots, as well as the occasional science fair project. In the past, we have had presenters from NASA, the George Mason University physics department, the National Institute of Health (NIH), the American Statistical Association (ASA), the Department of Energy, Naval Research Labs, and many others.
The event includes a science-themed musical exhibit and we raffle off very nice, usually science-related prizes (microscopes, telescopes, tablet computers, cameras). A contest has been held every year that enables students and their families to work together to solve problems. It varies year to year – once a bridge-building exercise, another time building towers, and once designing a container in which to protect an egg when dropped.
Math Day (suspended since pandemic)
IDA has restarted its successful annual winter Math Day event with Alexandria City High School's Minnie Howard 9th grade campus students visiting the Mark Center campus in Alexandria. For this event, Minnie Howard teachers bus about 30 ninth graders to IDA to see presentations and participate in activities relating to how math is used. These students are currently studying algebra or geometry. Math Day helps students understand the value of what they’re learning, specifically, how math can be interesting or even fascinating, and, in longer terms, how it can be useful to them as future professionals and in their daily lives. The group is divided into teams that cycle through presentations by various staff members – physicists, economists, retired military, financial experts – who discuss a variety of math applications with them. Afterward we provide them lunch and a “game show” competition that proves to be the climax for the students.
Annual Alexandria City High School Communications Conference (suspended since pandemic)
This one-day event takes place at Alexandria City High School toward the beginning of each school year and is intended to teach students importance of good communications skills in the workplace.
At the second annual conference, held October 23, 2019, students learned through presentations, discussion, and activities about written communication skills, presenting visual and technical data, building resumes, successful teaming, Toastmasters International, and more. We adapt the program annually to keep it interesting to students and targeted to their needs.