ST. ALBANS — Students from Bellows Free Academy St. Albans (BFA) and Missisquoi Valley Union (MVU) were honored for their science and technology work at the Fourth Annual Science, Technology, Engineering and Math recognition night Thursday at the Saint Albans Museum.

They also got to hear from a small town Vermonter who went on to become an international expert in cyber security.

The STEM Challenge Initiative encourages students to enter science and engineering fields, and awards grants to schools to help them realize real world projects that blend classroom learning with community advocacy.

One such project is the Power Mobility Project at BFA. Pediatric Physical Therapist Heather Blackburn partnered with BFA science teacher Pete Symula to create an affordable, kid-sized powered vehicle.

She said without independent power mobility, kids with mobility challenges do not develop like other kids. She added that commercial power wheel chairs can run $10,000, putting them out of reach for most families. The mobility projects plans to donate their vehicles.

Symula’s students applied mechanical and electrical engineering, and also created apps to operate the vehicles. Symula said the whenever a student gets a real world project, it’s different for them. “The engagement factor is exponentially higher,” he said.

Bellows Free Academy St. Albans student Alex Haag talks about his summer trip to Louisville, KY to compete in the Skills USA Championships Thursday at the STEM Recognition Night at the St. Albans Museum. (Neil Zawicki, MESSENGER STAFF)

Symula added that getting the grant was key to getting the project going. “We had all these great ideas but we didn’t have any funding for the project,” he said.

He said his team has built a prototype and will be adapting the car over the next two weeks. Once complete, they will have posture support, Blue Tooth controls, and other amenities. The cars will be recycled as the recipient kids grow out of them, and then will be passed on to new families.

“Giving these vehicles to families at zero cost makes a huge difference in the life of families with mobility challenged kids,” said Blackburn.

Another BFA student, Alexander Haag, talked about his recent STEM Initiative funded participation through the Northwest Technical Center at the Skills USA Championships in Louisville, Ky., this last June. The event is a massive gathering of science and tech-geared students nationwide, where the kids get to meet with professionals in the sectors and compete against other school teams.

“Everyone down there is obviously very invested in their field,” said Haag. “It really gave us a broader knowledge of everything technical.”

MVU Science Fair winners Cailie Cominsky and Ella Partlow also spoke about their recent experiments. (See page 2 for more on the MVU Science Fair winners.)

Cominsky worked to determine the effects of artificial sweeteners on fruit flies, and Partlow looked for plant-based alternatives to antibiotics. From her work, She determined that allspice was the most effective natural alternative.

A crowd of more than 60 made it out to the St. Albans Museum Thursday to honor students and teachers from the STEM Initiative. The annual diner recognizes projects and achievements in the program. (Neil Zawicki, MESSENGER STAFF)

The Mary Babcock Teacher of The Year award went to BFA science teacher Glenn McCabe.

“Mr. McCabe, you’re an unsung hero,” said STEM Initiative co-chair Cindy Bernier. “To me, you were never my kids’ teacher, you were their mentor.”

McCabe became a teacher after working in the private sector in engineering. Bernier said McCabe “uses STEM education by continuously researching new techniques.”

Such innovative thinking is common among above STEM participants, and the keynote speaker served to drive the point home. Matt Devost, a Canaan High School graduate, has become a sought after international expert on cyber security, having worked with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense, and appearing on major news networks to provide expert analysis. He told the group cyber security, artificial intelligence and analytics are the three biggest growing fields in tech.

“We have 3.5 million unfilled jobs in the cyber security field alone,” he said.

To inspire the kids, Devost talked about being a curious Vermont kid in school, working with his Commodore 64 computer and teaching himself programming. His career path eventually lead to the DOD asking him to break into the computer system on an aircraft carrier to find vulnerabilities.

“I have the honor and distinction to be the first person to ever hack an aircraft carrier,” he said. “That’s a pretty neat thing to be a kid from Vermont and hack an aircraft carrier.”

Devost also wrote the first cyber strategy for the Department of Defense, and has addressed the CIA as a cyber security expert. Showing a photo of himself with a person who’s face was blocked out for security purposes, he told the kids he got to work with the person the intelligence community calls “the closest thing to James Bond the U.S. has ever had.”

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