URI, UConn Navy STEM coalition awarded $3 million grant by U.S. Department of Defense

KINGSTON, R.I. – Dec. 14, 2021 – The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a $3 million grant to the University of Rhode Island and the University of Connecticut to build on the successes of their joint Naval Science and Technology (Navy STEM) coalition to address engineering workforce needs in the naval sector.

Established in 2017 with a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the UConn and URI Navy STEM Coalition was created to build a community of students, faculty, government and industry leaders that would expand the Navy science and technology workforce.

The new award, part of a $47 million grant from the National Defense Education Program, was funded through the Office of the Under Secretary of the Defense for Research and Engineering to enhance education, outreach and career development initiatives.

“This new grant will help us expand our partnerships and collaborations with UConn that we’ve built on the research side and provide us funding for a whole host of education and workforce development activities,” said Valerie Maier-Speredelozzi, Navy STEM Coalition director at URI. “We want to help our undergraduate and graduate students know that these career opportunities are there because we need to replace these critical jobs in engineering, manufacturing and technology. The need spans all of the different branches of the military and many different branches of STEM disciplines as well.”

At URI, Maier-Speredelozzi, associate professor of mechanical, industrial and systems engineering, is co-primary investigator on the grant with Professors Arun Shukla, David Taggart, James Miller and Carl-Ernst Rousseau. At UConn, Navy STEM director Alexandra Hain, civil and environmental engineering assistant research professor, is teaming with Professors Richard Christenson and Daniel Burkey.

Both universities have been leaders in naval and ocean engineering for decades, collaborating with the Navy through the National Institute for Undersea Vehicle Technology.  UConn and URI engineering students have long participated in internships with the Navy and naval industry for years. But the Navy STEM program has provided a greater knowledge about naval science and technology and the career opportunities available in the naval and defense industry.

Under the 2017 three-year grant, both universities established joint programs to increase opportunities for undergraduate engineering majors interested in careers in the Navy and undersea engineering. With the grant, UConn and URI opened a nine-credit undergraduate concentration in naval science and technology through which students can take part in internships, seminars with naval and defense industry professionals, and senior design projects with naval industry partners.

Located in a critical region, the universities are perfectly placed to provide the needed workers for a naval industry experiencing an aging of its science and technology workforce. According to the Office of Naval Research, more than 50 percent of the Navy’s scientists, engineers and those in related disciplines are eligible for retirement. Also, submarine construction – a critical industry in Southeast New England – is expected to take up almost half of the Navy’s budget in the coming decades.

“The Department of Defense grant was brought in with strong support from the National Institute for Undersea Vehicle Technology and help from our government and industry partners,” said Shukla, co-director of the institute. “The new STEM project is just getting underway with the objective of exposing our undergraduate students to opportunities in the defense sector, particularly Navy. Also, getting the undergraduate students involved in Navy-related projects so they get interested in and are prepared for a career in the Navy enterprise.”

Over the next three years, the $3 million grant will enable URI and UConn to enhance numerous education and outreach activities, including:

  • Building out the Navy STEM Ambassadors program and expand outreach programs targeted for students in grades kindergarten through 12. The grant will help create new activities to inspire K-12 students and inform them about career opportunities in naval industries. It will also fund summer workshops for K-12 teachers to increase the program’s reach to students. Along with K-12 outreach efforts, the Ambassadors, previously called Navy STEM Crew, attend campus recruiting days and network with peers.
  • Developing vital, project-based coursework for URI and UConn students, along with continuing to fund capstone and senior design projects. Courses could include the addition of a Hacking for Defense course, in which students “hack” relevant problems presented by defense industry partners. The course is already offered at more than 45 universities in the U.S., Maier-Speredelozzi said.
  • Increasing career development services for undergraduate and graduate students. “We’re also going to focus on increasing diversity in these programs, which includes women, underrepresented minorities and families of military personnel,” she said. “We’d like to get veterans and military families involved on campus.”
  • Bringing in professionals from the naval and defense industry to URI and UConn to talk with students. The Navy STEM weekly seminar series will return this spring semester, presenting local professionals from the defense industry who will address topics and challenges facing the industry. The seminars, presented in-person at URI or UConn and live-streamed to the partner campus, allow URI and UConn students to interact virtually at the end of the presentation.