JOPPA, Md.— For Army Lt. Col. Jeff Nelson, an expert on nuclear weapons and emergency management, a recent visit to Joppatowne High School offered a chance to pay it forward.
Students enrolled in the school’s Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Program, known as HSEP, benefit from interaction with Soldiers and civilians at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground. Nelson, 50, who will soon retire after nearly a quarter century in uniform was glad to bond with a new generation, he said.
“It was a fantastic opportunity,” Nelson said. “Seeing kids this far ahead in the field of emergency management and homeland security is amazing. I wanted to share my experience, so they can benefit from it.”
Now part of a nuclear disablement team at the 20th CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives) Command, Nelson’s career included several challenging CBRNE and emergency management roles.
“Emergency management is service,” Nelson told the students. “You are serving people. Don’t go in it for the money. You want to help people to recover from disasters.”
He enjoyed their questions. Although, some were tough.
How do you get rid of nuclear weapons? And, do you think that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is, in reality, a tradeoff for smaller wars between the U.S. and Russia?
“That is a good question,” Nelson said, taking the diplomatic route. “I don’t have policy answers for you, but these are great discussion points.”
He shared some stories, such as working alongside state and federal agencies in large-scale disaster response exercises. While training in Daegu, Korea, impending typhoons curtailed an exercise, forcing Nelson to assess real world threats. In 2012, as Hurricane Sandy threatened New York City, Nelson was again assessing potential CBRNE hazards.
“There’s a huge storm headed toward one of our most populated areas. What would you focus on?” Nelson asked. “My first concern was a nuclear power plant.”
If sea levels rose and water pumps failed, a situation like Japan’s March 2011 Fukashima nuclear disaster might occur.
“Fortunately, nothing like that happened,” Nelson said. “But, there was a possibility there and they needed someone to look for it.”
Building a new education model
In 2003, Harford County educators wanted to prepare students for the growing homeland security job market in a multi-billion dollar industry. By 2007, the HSEP program welcomed its first group of sophomores. Of Joppatowne’s roughly 660 students, 123 are currently enrolled in HSEP. That includes 44 sophomores, 46 juniors and 33 seniors.
“The Joppatowne community is very fortunate to house the nation’s first high school program for emergency preparedness,” said Pamela Zeigler, Joppatowne High School’s principal. “The HSEP program is an outstanding opportunity for students to receive academic preparation for college and careers as it relates to first responders in the areas of local or national emergency preparedness.”
In 10th grade, students just cover the basics. By 11th grade, they choose one of three pathways: the science of homeland security; criminal justice; or information and communication technology, which means integrating data and maps in Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. As seniors, they conduct yearlong research projects.
Support from nearby Army post
Since the program began 10 years ago, several APG personnel – experts in science, engineering, cyber security and chemical, biological and nuclear hazards – have served as guest speakers and mentors. For eight years, Shawn Davies, a trainer at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center has mentored Jopptowne seniors, helping focus topics for their capstone projects and guide them to on-post resources for their research.
“For me, it’s about giving back to the community and passing on knowledge,” Davies said.
Last year, when Davies was training Soldiers on tools to detect chemical and biological hazards, a senior she mentored developed training for sophomores. She researched how to teach her fellow students how to use chemical detectors in a variety of settings, Davies said.
“We have such great resources here,” Davies said. “By linking them up with the right people, they can see the realm of possibilities as far as science and engineering goes.”
Professionals outside traditional STEM fields have also served as guest speakers and mentors. APG Garrison Public Affairs Specialist Heather Roelker served as a guest speaker Dec. 6, providing insight into the role of a public information officer and emergency communication during a crisis or natural disaster. She also explained to students that the same social media they use to stay connected to friends is a vital tool for emergency communication to the public.
In December 2012, APG leaders and Harford County Public Schools signed an education partnership agreement that established cooperative efforts between Army units and local schools. This made way for a significant growth in APG’s support to local science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.
Brian Leftridge, a former Joppatowne teacher, now works at the STEM office for U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, who oversee all of APG’s STEM activities. When requests for speakers or mentors come in from schools, his office helps find subject matter experts from APG’s tenant organizations.
This November, Jordan Fitzgerald, a project manager at U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command’s Software Engineering Center, visited Joppatowne and has begun mentoring students interested in cybersecurity.
“If I can make someone excited about what I do, then maybe it will give some a chance a better future and help the county with our STEM deficit.”
He also explains what software engineers study in college, what work they might purse and the job’s salary expectations, he said.
“It’s sharing industry knowledge,” Fitzgerald said. “At 18, it’s sometimes unclear what you should do next, college for this or that. I like to raise their interest and tell them what they could do.”
As a junior, Corie Adams spent a couple weeks at APG, working with scientists and engineers to make batteries smaller and more effective. Now a senior, with Fitzgerald’s mentoring, Adams, 17, is focused on cyber-security. Having APG close by, to interact with professionals designing future technology, is important, Adams said.
“That’s what I want to do, I want to be the next Tony Stark,” said Adams, referring Marvel comic’s Iron Man character. “I may, one day, work for APG. I’ll try to get a job there.”
Preparing for JROTC at Joppatowne
At a March 2016 community leader meeting, APG Senior Commander Maj. Gen. Bruce Crawford set a goal for APG to support Harford County’s establishment of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps in a local school. In May, the Harford County Board of Education decided that Joppatowne High School would apply for JROTC. Currently, Joppatowne High School is on the Order of Merit List, awaiting future expansion of the JROTC program.
According to the Army’s JROTC website, JROTC teaches high school students about character education, student achievement, wellness, leadership, and diversity. Currently there are 1,731 Army JROTC units in 50 states and several overseas. The Army has reached its funding limit for JROTC programs; however, further expansion will occur when funding becomes available, the Army’s JROTC website says.
Ways for volunteers to get involved
While it may be a few years before JROTC is implemented at Joppatowne, there are still multiple opportunities for APG’s Army organizations to partner with the school through HSEP program. On Dec. 12, Joppatowne teachers and students will share their story with senior Army leaders and local officials during APG’s community leader meeting at Top of the Bay.
A renewed effort, spearheaded by the garrison’s public affairs office, is helping coordinate future engagements with the HSEP program. There are opportunities for APG Soldiers and civilians to volunteer as guest speakers and mentors. Program coordinators are also looking for opportunities for HSEP students to take part in on-post activities and exercises.
For more information call APG’s STEM office at (410) 306-3110 or the school liaison office at (410) 278-2857.
Story by Rick Scavetta, USAG APG