Stepping Up: Students learn value of STEM careers

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Anthony Heckstall, 14, lines up his robot to maneuver an obstacle course during the Step Up Leadership Academy for Young Men in Dixon Hall at Elizabeth City State University Thursday. Twenty-one area high school students participated in the camp, which emphasized hands-on activities in STEM-related fields.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Nearly two-dozen area high school students took full opportunity of a chance this week to step up toward a career in a STEM-related field.

The students took part in the Step Up program’s first-ever Leadership Academy for Young Men at Elizabeth City State University. The brainchild of local educators, Step Up was formed last December to help young men become more goal-oriented and to start thinking earlier about careers in STEM fields, including cybersecurity and robotics.    

On Friday, a number of the Step Up campers expressed thanks to their instructors for the chance to learn new things during a ceremony in ECSU’s Dixon Hall. 

"This was an exceptional program by these amazing people," D.J. Cowell, a 10th-grader at Camden County High School, said, referring to the Step Up camp’s instructors. "It was an honor to be able to participate in this program."

Anthony Heckstall, a 10th-grader at Camden Early College, said Step Up was amazing because it helped him find out new things about himself. He said he also enjoyed learning how to program a robot.

"That was one of my favorites because it was fun at the same time," he said.

Heckstall, 14, also drew laughs when he also noted, "I learned that I could type an essay in under 20 minutes."

Vincent Wood, a 10th-grader at Northeastern High School, said he also learned how to program robots and to design video games. But one of the best things he learned, he said, was how to network with other people and be a team player. 

"I made a whole bunch of friends – it was just amazing," he said.

The Step Up campers were also treated to remarks by someone who has already been where they hope to go.

Dr. Roger Hathaway, a former longtime NASA educator, spoke at Friday’s ceremony at the invitation of his niece, Angela Richardson, an educator in Camden County who is involved in the Step Up program.

"This world needs problem solvers – and every last one of you can be a part of that," Hathaway told the students. "Let this be the beginning of the next step for you."

Hathaway, 67, is an Edenton native, a 1968 graduate of D.F. Walker High School and a 1972 graduate of ECSU. He worked 33 years for NASA, most of those years at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. One of his roles was to oversee a series of programs that encouraged students to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.

Hathaway said he wasn’t interested in the space program when he was young. But what he did have, he said, were parents who were supportive and encouraging.

"I didn't even have any interest in it, but I had a mother and a father who were praying and hoping that one day in life, the doors would open for me," he said.

The doors opened after Hathaway landed his first job as an industrial arts teacher at a middle school in Hampton. Because of his interest in technology, he got a chance, through Virginia Tech University, to spend a couple of years working on programs for NASA. He later would go to work for the agency.

Besides working at Langley, Hathaway also worked for NASA in Washington, D.C., as an assistant to the deputy administrator.

Recalling the Challenger disaster in 1986, Hathaway told students that high-demand work will still involve errors and mistakes. The key, he said, is to learn from those mistakes.

"Just because you fall short, the journey still continues. And that's what we did," he said.