UA to Train ROTC Students for STEM Work
An interdisciplinary team at the University has received federal funding to structure and launch a program encouraging careers with the U.S. Navy.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Oct. 3, 2016


Involving experts in education, geospatial sciences and veterans affairs, as well as Raytheon Missile Systems as a partner, NAVIGATE is a reflection and extension of the UA's already notable nationwide reputation for providing the academic, financial and
Involving experts in education, geospatial sciences and veterans affairs, as well as Raytheon Missile Systems as a partner, NAVIGATE is a reflection and extension of the UA's already notable nationwide reputation for providing the academic, financial and social supports necessary to aid in the success of student veterans.

As powerful geographic information systems and technologies revolutionize planning and operations in the military, the University of Arizona has launched a project to encourage ROTC students and student veterans to pursue careers as scientists and engineers with the U.S. Navy.

Led by the College of Education's Sara Chavarria, an interdisciplinary team has launched "NAVy Intelligence through Geospatial Applications and TEchnology," or NAVIGATE, a three-year project with more than $748,000 in funding from the Office of Naval Research.

NAVIGATE is an immersive science, engineering, technology and mathematics, or STEM, training program that will provide students with specialized training in geospatial technology while helping them to prepare for STEM careers with the Navy or other military branches or for careers in law enforcement.

"Geospatial technology is becoming the common operating platform for what happens on the land, in the air and at sea," said Karen Siderelis, co-principal investigator on the grant and a research scientist for the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, housed within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "But even if you aren't working with the Navy, these are transferrable concepts."

Generally, geospatial thinking refers to the process of applying scientific and technological methods to chart and map reading, investigating spatial relationships, and identifying and interpreting spatial patterns. Such skills, which are important for the use of geographic information systems, remote sensing and global positioning systems, have important implications for work inside and beyond the military.

"We are focusing mostly on military, STEM applications, but we do not want to limit their career exposure," said Chavarria, principal investigator on the grant and also assistant dean of research development and outreach for the College of Education, where she is assistant director of the STEM Learning Center.

"Geospatial tools are necessary for any work that requires people to understand patterns, or to see big-picture-level issues, whether that be for a community or region or at the global level."

Meeting National Demand

GIS and geospatial technologies are increasingly reliable tools for protecting military installations, planning for the location of facilities, aiding emergency responders, investigating wetlands and habitat areas for species of animals, and tracking natural- and human-caused changes in land and the environment. 

Yet, there exists a nationwide need for STEM-educated and -trained officers in the military, and to boost the nation's competitiveness.

"If we don't focus on the STEM workforce, we are not going to be as effective with our military or with our economy," Siderelis said. "We are on to something that might be part of the solution."

The U.S. STEM Undergraduate Model, a report released by the Business-Higher Education Forum, indicates that 35 percent of the U.S. Navy's civilian workforce is in the STEM fields. The report also indicates that the Navy is graying; 65 percent of the STEM professionals are 40 and older, and half will be eligible for retirement in 2020. The report indicates a need for 5,000 professionals who are skilled in STEM by that year.

Geared toward Naval ROTC and student veterans who are in their freshman and sophomore years, NAVIGATE includes field experiences through a two-sequence course, offered through the School of Natural Resources and the Environment. The experiences are highly participatory and practical, modeled after labs.

"What makes this program so unique is that we are targeting freshmen and sophomores," Chavarria said, noting that 20 students are expected in the first year. "This kind of immersive lab experience is generally not typical at this level."

A seven-week course that begins on Oct. 13 is being taught by Siderelis along with Willem van Leeuwen and Craig Wissler, both associate professors in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment. A second program session will be held in the spring.

Both courses, to include supplemental instruction online, will focus on spatial concepts and analysis, teaching students how to use geospatial data and online mapping tools. Additionally, the team is developing teaching and online mentoring guides to aid military science faculty, while also evaluating ways to sustain and expand the project elsewhere.

"As a veteran, I could have utilized this to help me on the battlefield," said Craig Bal, a senior studying agricultural technology management who is the NAVIGATE mentor coordinator.

Bal, who served in the U.S. Marines from 2006 to 2011 with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said such training would have been especially helpful during his time as a sergeant.

"It's a real-world punch in the stomach for me," Bal said, "and I am very much on board with this and how we can relay this in a way that it is applicable."

To encourage practicality, students will learn about the social, political and economic issues in the South China Sea region, which encompasses countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, as an application area of geospatial technology. In doing so, students will work with print and digital maps and charts of the U.S. Geological Survey, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Students also will have access to numerous other geospatial datasets at global and local scales, and they will learn about and use the best geospatial technology, including location-enabled smart phone apps.

Cynthia Morton hopes to join the program, saying she can already see its practical applications and benefits.

"As an officer, you may end up driving a ship, flying an aircraft or working with intelligence, and this type of training would be incredibly useful in each one of those fields," said Morton, a Naval ROTC student studying political science and also Middle Eastern and North African studies.

Building Resiliency and Retention

In partnership with Raytheon Missile Systems, company employees will serve as professional liaisons and mentors to students in the program. Also, with the inclusion of peer-to-peer support provided by UA student veterans, NAVIGATE offers the academic, social and professional support necessary to retain students in STEM. 

That type of collective support, coupled with the practice in-class and field-based experience, is also meant to prepare students for the demands of service.

"We need to figure out a way to get students engaged early on, and in a meaningful way, so that they stay on track in their majors," Siderelis said.

"We have been very interested in how we can help students to find meaning in STEM in order to help them to persist in STEM. So this is also a persistence issue. Students shouldn't lose hope in STEM if they are stressed, or if they feel they don't belong. Core courses in STEM tracks are tough courses, and if students struggle in them, they will sometimes forget why they were interested in their STEM field in the first place."

Also to encourage retention and engagement, students will participate in a number of immersive off-campus experiences and activities, including an outdoor activity planned for Nov. 5 in which they will utilize geospatial learning and techniques in a team-based and competition-style orienteering project, either in Saguaro National Park East or the Catalina Mountains. And one course requirement is for students to work in teams on a challenge project directly related to the South China Sea region. Some will then have an opportunity to present their solutions during a geospatial professional meeting, the Esri Federal User Conference, to be held in February in Washington, D.C.

Another important element of the program is direct training on ways to best address conflicts and personal concerns.

Thus, in the same way that the team is thinking holistically about the benefits of geospatial learning, so too is the team thinking about the important benefits of taking a holistic approach to student engagement and learning, said Cody Nicholls, the UA's assistant dean of students for Military and Veteran Engagement.

"Broadly, if we are not taking care of how we are handling our own daily lives, and if we are not taking care of each other, everything is affected — work, academics and family are affected," Nicholls said. "At the end of the day, it's about that holistic piece, which comes back to the specifics of the STEM portion of the grant. If we aren't taking care of ourselves, we won't be able to take this to the next step."

Extra info

Students interested in taking NAVIGATE's one-unit lab course should contact Alex Ruff at

The project involves an expansive public-private and interdisciplinary team. Team members are:

  • Sara Chavarria, principal investigator on the grant, of the UA College of Education and the STEM Learning Center
  • Michelle Higgins, co-principal investigator, of the UA College of Educaiton and the STEM Learning Center
  • Karen Siderelis, co-principal investigator, of the School of Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Craig Wissler and Willem Van Leeuwen of the School of Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Cody Nicholls and Michael Marks of Veterans Education and Transition Services
  • Col. Patrick Wall of the UA's Navy ROTC
  • Shalane Simmons of Raytheon Missile Systems


Resources for the media

Sara Chavarria

UA College of Education

UA STEM Learning Center