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DOD Develops STEM Talent Pool Through Scholarships, Internships

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 21, 2024) -- The most sophisticated weapons systems, computers and other technology are important to ensuring the U.S. military keeps its competitive edge. But also important is the talent pool -- both military and civilian -- that helps develop that technology and keeps it running.

Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said DOD, like many businesses in the private sector, struggles to attract talent to fill science, technology, engineering and mathematics roles and has tools in place to help develop and recruit more STEM talent.

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"If you look at the number of STEM students that we have, we're short nationally," Shyu said Wednesday at the Reagan Institute's National Security Innovation Base Summit in Washington. "It's not just within DOD that we have a problem. Companies are also short of a talent base that we can draw from. We're competing for the same pool of talent."

One tool to increase STEM talent, Shyu said, is DOD's Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation Scholarship Program, or SMART Scholarship.

In 2023, DOD handed out 468 SMART scholarships for undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies across 24 academic disciplines critical to national security and DOD's future.

For each year of school DOD funds, recipients are obligated to do one year of work for the department. "We're trying to increase the number of SMART Scholarship that we have," Shyu said. "In the ... last 2 1/2 years, we have awarded 1,400 STEM scholarships, and the STEM scholarships help the students. It's a fee for service. I pay for four years of college; you owe me four years of time within the DOD laboratory."

One scholarship recipient, Shyu said, benefitted from the SMART Scholarship when DOD paid for his master's degree and doctorate.

"Now, he is doing underwater sonar research at the Naval Underwater Warfare Center," she said. "This is the power of having the SMART Scholarship so we can grow our talent pool."

Recently, Shyu visited a handful of universities in Texas to meet with leaders to talk about challenges facing students as they pursue educations in STEM fields.

"I really gained a much better understanding when talking to the professors, the deans, the presidents and the chancellors," she said.

Shyu said she told those she met with about an internship that is part of the SMART Scholarship undergraduate program. She said she learned that some students might not be able to participate in that internship because they're needed at home to help their families due to financial hardships.

Now, she said, the department has modified that internship to enable students to participate while continuing to help support their families.

Shyu proposed letting interns spend the first week of their internships at their DOD lab to learn about their project and meet the people, then work from home for the rest of the five weeks. "And that was a huge benefit to some of the students, so that's one thing we've done," she said.

Shyu said better understanding the challenges facing students has improved options for helping those students stay in and grow within STEM fields -- and that will ultimately increase the STEM talent pool.

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