(TNS) — No doubt, it's great fun to launch a water rocket, program a Lego-based robot to follow basic commands and build an intricate tower from balsa wood--then load it down with sand until the whole structure collapses.

But the 2017 Dahlgren STEM Summer Academy is about more than exposing students to various challenges. It keeps participants from ending up "brain dead," which rising seventh-grader Carolyn Reid of Stafford County says can happen when school is closed.

It also gives them food for thought, now and in the future.

The 96 students from the Dahlgren School, Fredericksburg and the counties of King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford are spending this week working with scientists and engineers from Naval Support Facility Dahlgren. They hear men and women who build weapons to defend the nation or use equipment to track its enemies talk about the way they apply skills learned in science and math classes.

"It really gets [the students] thinking, 'Yeah, I could do that,' " said John Wright, who started the academy in 2005 and is retiring this week after directing the Navy base's STEM outreach programs.

Getting more American students interested in jobs as scientists and engineers is a Department of Defense goal, said Scott Gingrich, the academy's director. He said the DoD was worried that the United States didn't have enough "up-and-coming" professionals in those specific fields--and outsourcing wasn't an option.

"Hiring the Chinese [to work on] the railgun probably isn't the best idea," Gingrich said.

The Navy is developing a railgun that uses the friction from electromagnetic energy, not gunpowder or propellants, to fire a projectile, and it was a topic of conversation at the academy this week.

David Campbell, a physicist at the Navy base, has worked on the railgun for four years. He designs launch packages for the weapon, which he says still needs a lot of testing to overcome problems with physics before it's ready to be put on ships.

Campbell told about 30 parents during an open house at the academy, held at King George Middle School, that he attended the camp when he was 12. He keeps coming back as a mentor to share the message that people really can use math and science skills learned in school in some cool life situations, such as working on the Navy's newest generation of weapons.

"That's why I'm here, to continue the legacy," Campbell said.

Lucy Hensley, a rising ninth-grader at James Monroe High School, was working with Carolyn, the Stafford student who'd rather keep her skills fresh than go brain dead. Carolyn is a rising seventh-grader at A.G. Wright Middle School.

The two were trying to figure out how to get their Lego NXT robot to move "troops," otherwise known as Lego figures, from the home base to a landing zone. The students were divided into 16 teams of six each, and no students from the same school were paired together.

Each team included a scientist or engineer as well as a middle-school teacher. The camp also had nine junior mentors, high school students who attended the academy in the past. The College of William & Mary provides curriculum and staffing support.

On tabletop boards big enough to play ping -- pong, the students used a basic programming language to make their robots complete missions. They had to rescue a stranded swimmer from the blue portion of the exercise area or create a warning beacon on the yellow part that denotes land.

Some students would rather build robots than program them, Lucy said, so each played to his or her strength, and then the team rotated jobs.

"It's fun to work with other people and do challenges," she said.

Xavier Edeln, a rising eighth-grader at Thornburg Middle School, said the challenges forced the students, who didn't know each other before the camp began, to come together.

"You have to cooperate with other people and that helps with communication skills," he said.

Gingrich floated throughout the school cafeteria and outside displays, explaining to parents and visitors what the students were trying to accomplish. He could probably understand the frustration of Caeden Ribel, a rising ninth-grader at James Monroe, who said it took him 25 tries to get his robot to turn, swivel and back up the way he wanted it too.

"They learn essentially that computers are very fast but very stupid," Gingrich said. "They're so dumb that they do what you tell them to do and not what you want them to do."

The students and their parents also learn about internships available at the Navy base and programs that will pay college students and help toward their higher education. They're all competitive and attract applicants from across the nation, according to Wright.

"There are a lot of opportunities out there," Campbell said.

More information on the Navy's programs for students is available at navsea.navy.mil/Career-Opportunities/Join-Our-Team/Internships/.

___

(c)2017 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.