Military exposure at local science fair

By Christopher Gaylord/JBLM PAO on April 1, 2013

TACOMA - Even in a gymnasium packed with tri-fold presentation boards, men and women clad in white lab coats and college professors scribbling down notes on grading sheets, an old Army infantryman can find some common ground.

Over the last 25 years, Sgt. Maj. Robert Braddock has led Soldiers, taught at Army Ranger School and deployed to combat.

It's not exactly the pedigree that makes one suitable to evaluate projects alongside some of the area's most seasoned educators at a local science fair.

Still, it didn't take long for Braddock to find a connection to this year's South Sound Regional Science and Engineering Fair Saturday at Pacific Lutheran University.

"I hate people who litter," said Braddock, reading the findings of a high school student's science project, which tested how a trash filter in a storm drain could affect pollution and the death rate of animals. "Being in the Army, that's ingrained in you."

"In fact, that's bothering me right now," he said, gesturing to a wrapper lying under the table the student's tri-fold sat on just before picking it up and throwing it away.

"I think this is my favorite one so far," said Braddock, the operations sergeant major for JBLM's 191st Infantry Brigade, who volunteered to judge science projects for the annual fair.

Braddock, who went through Army basic training before he was a senior in high school, also owns ducks. They're about 15 weeks old. And trash, he said, is a concern for them, too.

Six other service members from JBLM joined Braddock to grade during the high school-level portion of the fair, a daylong event that brought together around 90 elementary, middle and high schools from Pierce, Thurston and Lewis counties and nearly 500 different projects. About 130 volunteers evaluated them.

So what do Soldiers and Airmen know about science, anyway?

Senior Airman Sarah Myers is a weather technician with the 62nd Operations Support Squadron on McChord Field.

One of the projects in her judging category focused on the possibility of using water turbines in sewer tunnels to generate electricity - a concept that, in her line of work, she's actually quite familiar with.

Two weekends ago, she said, she attended a National Weather Service convention in the area, during which weather forecasters discussed teaming up with local power companies to derive energy from sewage turbines.

"I encouraged him (the student) to go and speak with them (power companies), and say, ‘Hey, I have this great idea,'" Myers said. "If we're having high amounts of rainfall, and you put turbines in the sewers, that could be an alternate means of energy."

Training for a variety of specialties in today's armed forces, service members bring more than just military knowledge to the table.

"I don't think people think about that when they see us walking around in our uniforms," said Myers.. "I think they say, ‘Oh, he's a Soldier; he probably shoots people."

Steve Colgan, who has organized the fair for the last seven years, said JBLM military men and women have always participated. Lack of a science background, he said, can actually be a quite fortunate thing.

One of the Airmen who judged this year, he said, concerned himself with the practical application of a project rather than its scientific aspects.

"What the military brings in is judging from a human, non-science point of view," he said.

But they also add a face to the military and to JBLM, a robust community whose Soldiers, Airmen and veterans make up a fairly large part of the South Sound population but still remain a mystery to many.

"It gives the students a chance to get to know what the military is actually about," said 15-year-old Mehar Nallamalli, a freshman at Capital High School in Olympia, who designed his own smart phone app that allows people to easily and discreetly alert first responders and security in emergency situations by simply saying a "magic word" or touching one button. "A lot of people think it's only about guns and war. There are also many different aspects, such as medicine."

The Department of Defense, Braddock said, is the largest employer in the state of Washington.

But in the 13 years of his career he's spent with units at JBLM, he's met plenty of businessmen and women in the area who had never met a service member before meeting him.

Braddock hasn't been to a science fair since 1982, when he was competing. What students did in those days, he said, was laughable compared to the projects he judged Saturday.

"I almost want to be a kid again and go back through school, so maybe I'd actually learn something," he said.