A team of national finalists in the U.S. Army Educational Outreach Program's 2017 eCYBERMISSION STEM competition recently visited the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center to present their project and meet Army civilian scientists and engineers.

The eCYBERMISSION National STEM Competition is a U.S. Army sponsored, web-based, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or STEM, competition for students in grades six through nine that challenges students to identify a problem in their community and use best practices in scientific inquiry or the engineering design process to propose and implement a solution. Department of Defense scientists and engineers serve as judges and mentors for the competition, including several from NSRDEC.

Out of 20,607 students from across the country who entered eCYBERMISSION, only 20 regional winning teams, made up of three to four students each, were selected as finalists in the competition's culminating event -- the National Judging and Education Event.

Each team participates in hands-on STEM demonstrations and presents their projects in-person, on a national stage and to a panel of experts representing a cross section of scientific disciplines.

For NSRDEC's Chief Scientist Dr. Charlene Mello, one of those teams stood out.

"Upon attendance at the eCYBERMISSION National Awards Luncheon in August, I was very impressed by a team from New Mexico, called the NanoTygers, whose project focused on providing protective capabilities to military and first responder uniforms," said Mello. 

"These protective capabilities focused on ballistic, antimicrobial, and flame-retardant capabilities."

Because the NanoTygers' project aligns so closely with NSRDEC's mission to provide the Army with innovative science and technology solutions to optimize individual Soldier performance, Mello personally invited the team to visit Natick to present their work and engage with several scientists and engineers currently working in areas related to their project.

According to eCYBERMISSION's Mission Folder, the focus of the NanoTygers' project, performed over a 16-week period, was "to produce a lightweight, antibacterial, chemical protective, self-healing, and non-allergenic protective material to be used and integrated into protective uniforms for protective service representatives," which include firefighters, first responders, and the military.

"It was determined that a combination of chitosan, graphene, and baking soda applied to cotton was most effective at producing fire resistance, as well as antibacterial protection, while being moderately non-allergenic," the team stated in their Mission Folder. "This combination also resisted impact the most, allowed the fabric to be pliable, yet still protective, and had indications of being self-healing therefore indicating an effective combination for protective wear."

Mello encouraged the entire NSRDEC workforce to attend the NanoTygers' presentation for "the opportunity to interact and learn from our next generation of scientists and engineers."

The NanoTygers team is made up of three student members: Daniel Cordova, age 15; Cameron Gonzales, age 15; and Indigo Acosta, age 15 from Taos Middle/High School in Taos, New Mexico. The team's mentor and advisor, Laura Tenorio, was present, as well. 

The team's trip to Natick was funded by the AEOP and facilitated by NSRDEC's higher headquarters, the Research Development Engineering Command, or RDECOM, which is the executing agent for the AEOP on behalf of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisitions Logistics and Technology and manages the eCYBERMISSION competition for the Army in conjunction with the National Science Teachers Association.

"We offer a wide range of enrichment activities, competitions, and apprenticeships designed to attract, engage, and challenge students in STEM subjects," said Jerry Crabb, a marketing specialist for RDECOM and member of the AEOP STEM team, serving as program manager for the eCYBERMISSION competition.

"The U.S. Army's greatest assets for STEM education are the state of the art research facilities it owns and the world-class scientists and engineers it employs.

"eCYBERMISSION, like all of our programs, leverages those existing assets to engage students in STEM education," said Crabb. "We (AEOP) were very excited to have NSRDEC invite team NanoTygers to tour the facilities at Natick, and further engage with NSRDEC scientists and engineers.

"It absolutely fits within our mission and is something we were excited to help facilitate," said Crabb. "It's the first time we've had an eCYBERMISSION team visit a lab post-competition and that's something we're looking to continue to do."

During the NanoTygers presentation, each member took turns presenting different aspects of his project to the NSRDEC workforce, explaining goals, hypotheses, experimentation methods, observations, conclusions and next steps. The team also fielded questions from members of the audience.

"The eagerness of the science and engineering community at NSRDEC to engage with the NanoTygers during their visit demonstrates the dedication of our workforce to share their knowledge with the next generation of scientists and engineers, while promoting the significance of STEM in protecting Soldiers of the future," said Mello.

After presenting to the workforce, the NanoTygers received a comprehensive tour of NSRDEC laboratories and facilities related to their project. Additionally, the team was able to sit down with subject matter experts working specifically in the areas of antimicrobial, ballistic and thermal protection for Army combat uniforms.

"It was fascinating seeing a professional laboratory where every perspective, from Soldiers to PhDs is heard and considered," said Acosta. "New knowledge, applicable to my project was plentiful!"

"We learned about ANSI standards; about textiles -- how every aspect, from the type of fiber to how it can be camouflaged can affect the overall statistics of a uniform," said Acosta. "We were also guided to new testing procedures which will allow us to move forward with our project in new and more accurate directions."

"My visit to Natick was awe-inspiring," said Gonzales. "The fact that three boys from a small town were invited to visit these labs all the way across the country was humbling."

"It opened my eyes to some of the different careers in STEM," said Gonzales. "I learned many things that I had not known before and the vertical flame test can be integrated into our project to get more accurate results according to the standard."

"The visit to Natick was an engineer's dream come true," said Cordova. "I was able to learn about different tests that we could easily apply to the project, particularly the flame testing and other fabric penetration testing."

All three students listed the full-scale mannequin flame testing as their favorite lab to visit.

"It's hard to say what was my favorite part, as every scientist that showed us their individual field offered a great learning experience and that was an honor," said Acosta. "But it's hard to beat [textile technologist] Ms. Peggy Auerbach's flame-testing demonstrations for the sheer adrenaline rush and for bringing ANSI standards into real world perspective."

"The visit to Natick and the interaction with relevant experts gave the guys a new direction and fresh perspective on continuations that can be done to enhance the project," said Tenorio. "Seeing the work that's being done at a professional laboratory, by professional scientists, it was a real confidence booster for all three boys to see what they could do, how they could improve upon, and what they could add to enhance their project and skill sets."

"Additionally, the visit to Natick has enabled the boys and myself to be able to come back to our school district and spread the knowledge learned to the science fair team back home, inspiring more up and coming student scientists with what is possible," said Tenorio. "One of the really awesome things we noticed about Natick was the fact that unlike many other laboratories, there is a much larger concern with the opinions of Soldiers and end users that inspire innovation, which is very similar to our science fair in Taos."

"I was impressed by the poise and maturity that the NanoTygers displayed during their visit to the NSRDEC," said Mello. "The enthusiasm and passion for science that Daniel, Cameron and Indy displayed is remarkable."

"Although the NanoTygers are only in high school, their interest in technologies to improve protection for first responders and the military speaks to their appreciation at such a young age for science and technology to address real world problems in their community," said Mello. "This directly aligns with the Army's eCYBERMISSION objective to challenge students to explore how science and technology can impact their world."

"As team NanoTygers continue though the AEOP pipeline I'm sure we'll continue to see amazing things from these students," said Crabb. "I can't wait to see what they bring to the Junior Science and Humanities Symposia this year, and beyond!"