The nation’s best homeland security program for high school students: That was how one top Department of Defense official described a unique Sandia-sponsored educational endeavor in which students grapple with answers to realistic life-and-death scenarios.
The one-year educational program was created by John Taylor, Sandia manager of the Integrated Technologies and Systems Strategic Office, for high school students in his hometown area of Needles, Calif. It involved three phases during which students learned about issues for first-responders and homeland security, how to apply emergency plans to three case studies, and an emergency exercise that becomes a national event when a small plane crashes into the Hoover Dam.
“I’ve met with high school students before but this program with Sandia Labs is the best ever,” said Paul McHale, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense at the DoD. “I’ve been deeply impressed by the scenarios and student responses.”
Seventeen-year-old student representatives Emily Blair of River Valley High School in Mohave County, Ariz., and Rolland Hartwick of Needles High School travelled to the Pentagon to present their findings from the emergency exercise to McHale. They were joined by John and two teachers.
What surprised the students most from this innovative learning experience, McHale asked after their presentation. The students said they were surprised by out-of-the-box responses to problem-solving such as an idea for government officials to distribute watermelons to ease a water shortage.
“We’re not creative enough to provide watermelons,” McHale laughed, “but we do provide tankers of water as we did with Hurricane Katrina.”
McHale noted that the DoD must carefully consider what role the US military should play in civilian operations involving homeland security. Terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction is the single most likely character-istic of a situation apt to get a DoD/military response to a homeland-security incident, he added. Otherwise, the DoD is more likely to play a supporting role to state and local first-responders.
McHale recommended that Sandia’s program be extended to other schools and students.
“This program is beneficial to every high school in the nation. The fact is that there are transnational terrorists who seek to do us harm, and given the opportunity, they will use weapons of mass destruction to try to kill Americans in a brutal way as they did on Sept. 11,” he said, adding that anticipating these events is the key to defeating them.
“These are very realistic threats, and I think although it is sobering to consider them, it is also essential that we think realistically not only about the threats we face today, but the kinds of terrorist threats that we will likely face over the next several decades.”