More than 75 students of four Charles County middle schools headed to Naval Air Warfare Center — Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) — better known as Pax River — earlier this month to take part in National Week at the Labs activities.

Organized by Pax River’s Educational Outreach Office, the program was launched in 2016 as part of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge. Coordinated with the White House Council on Women and Girls and the Task Force on Improving the Lives of Boys and Young Men of Color and Underserved Youth, National Week at the Labs aims to introduce students in underrepresented populations to career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“This event coincides with the end of Black History Month and the beginning of Women’s History Month, to reach out to those underrepresented populations and excite them about pursuing STEM careers,” Holly Kellogg, NAWCAD director of STEM and educational outreach, said.

Students in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) programs of John Hanson, Matthew Henson, Mattawoman and General Smallwood middle schools met in a hanger on the navy base for a welcome.

“There is a critical shortage of young people — especially young girls and young people of color — in STEM careers,” said Maria Thorpe, associate director vice assistant of the human systems department on the base. The groups then went their separate ways for the events of the days. One went to tour aircraft; the other to build and test out experiments. After lunch, the groups switched.

One station called for students to build catapults out of rubber bands and plastic spoons to launch wet cotton balls at a target; another had students making rockets out of straws that were sent flying to the hanger wall. “It’s trial and error,” Thorpe said to students who headed back to the drawing board after their cotton balls splatted down far from the target. “Try it out and test it. If it’s not working how you want, go back and make it better.”

Nathaniel Brough, a seventh grader at General Smallwood, has an interest in the fields highlighted during the event. “I want to be an engineer,” he said. “I think STEM is fascinating.”

AVID students were selected to participate in the field trip to spotlight more career fields and opportunities available to them. “AVID exposes students to career opportunities that they just don’t think about,” Alexandra Eichel, Henson school counselor, said.

Henson eighth grader J.J. Loving said his interest was piqued by the trip. “It looks cool … to see the process of how it all comes together,” he said after taking a walk-through tour of a C-130 aircraft.

“These students represent the future workforce,” Kellogg said. “Whether the students are interested in joining the military or going to college in their future, this National Week at the Labs is meant to inspire students to apply themselves to do well in school, and to pursue STEM educations and careers.”