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Lockheed Martin surprises high school students with hands-on project help

It has been a difficult school year for Lake Nona High School junior Valentina Diaz, who admits to struggling with physics and calculus.

The tough times had nearly derailed her efforts to pursue a career in aerospace engineering.

But a surprise visit to her classroom recently by Lockheed Martin engineers reinvigorated the 16-year-old.

"I was trying my hardest, but it didn't seem that it was enough," Valentina said. "But this opportunity ... made me want to actually work harder and harder to get to the goal I have been trying to reach since I was about 5 years old."

Lockheed Martin engineers came to Lake Nona High School to help students wrap up projects that had them working up plans for a prototype aircraft that could help in a simulated humanitarian aid mission.

The visit was one of a handful the company has made to classrooms across the U.S. The company also left some goodies behind, including a 3D printer as a gift for future use.

Lockheed's motives for the visit were at least somewhat self-serving. Building a workforce in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields has become a priority for the tech industry, including many defense companies in Central Florida.

As more businesses have a need for tech workers, they try to build the workforce by inspiring students, with that often meaningful classroom visit.

"STEM is growing even faster than just six or seven years ago," said Lockheed Martin biomechanist Christine Sleppy at Lake Nona. "The best way to continue to grow that is to make it more available to students at a younger age. You get them involved early."

Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, who also attended the event, said students need personal interaction with professionals like the Lockheed Martin workers.

"It's not just reading, but it's watching videos (online) now," she said. "But when they can engage, that is where the real learning takes place. This is an opportunity to inspire and get young people interested in STEM."

As Kristine Richards watched her students work in teams, they brought to life what had been 2D diagrams of vehicles using modeling clay, sculpting tools, wires and aluminum foil.

She said her students' weeklong effort to create the aircraft design had been impressive.

"My goal is to give them the tools that are necessary for them to succeed," she said. "I understand not everybody can become engineers but I want my kids to be thinking up problems to solve."

It's a skill highly coveted by technology companies in Central Florida and elsewhere.

"We are trying to get the students more prepared for when they graduate to be ready to step into these high-tech engineering jobs," said Elizabeth Burch, whose company Dignitas Technologies has worked on STEM-based initiatives with the U.S. Army. "If we can impart knowledge of modeling and simulation during the high school years and keep them engaged in middle school, you will get more students interested."

Lack of interest has not been an issue for Valentina since her father bought her a telescope for Christmas when she was 5 years old.

The gift was a way for him to encourage Valentina to pursue her dreams, pointing out that obstacles are mere specks of dust when compared to the vast universe.

When he told her that, Valentina said she seemed "so insignificant and those problems just seem to go away cause space is so vast and deep."

Lockheed Martin's partnership with the school district goes back years. In 2015, the company provided a $2 million grant to bring a program that trains teachers in STEM-based instruction to the district.

And while Valentina said she has attended a handful of presentations by Lockheed workers at her school, she felt a different vibe at this visit.

"This is way different than that because we are actually working together, and they are helping us," she said. "Now I can see what it really takes to be an engineer."

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