More than 1,000 middle school pupils from Frederick County participated Wednesday in the 12th annual Future STEM Career Conference at Frederick Community College.

The conference featured professionals from various sectors of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics field. They ranged from the National Park Service to architects to AstraZeneca Biologics representatives.

FCPS STEM coordinator Kim Day said this is her eighth year helping organize the event. The idea is to create a wide array of subjects that middle schoolers might be interested in learning about.

The event started with high school students but changed to the middle school level eight years ago in order to keep students in that age group interested in STEM.

When that switch happened, the capacity for students doubled, Day said.

“They get to hear from a person who does that job,” she said of the various classes. “While teachers can inspire their students, it’s a little bit different when you hear from somebody who actually does the job.”

One of those instructors was Michael Menzel, an engineer with NASA. Early Wednesday afternoon, Menzel taught a classroom of middle schoolers about infrared lighting, briefly highlighted stars and planets and reviewed the work needed to construct the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch roughly 1 million miles from the Earth in 1½ to two years.

Menzel detailed the rigorous testing needed to ensure the James Webb survives the initial launch and 14-day journey. A video showed each part of the telescope, more than 20 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter.

“This will be the worst 14 days of my life,” he joked.

Neha Nair, a seventh-grader at Middletown Middle School, was one of the students who attended Menzel’s class. She liked when Menzel discussed wavelengths and different galaxies.

Neha wants to be an astronomer with NASA when she grows up and she appreciated the science that went into building the James Webb Space Telescope.

“I think it was really neat how in-detail that was, and what happens each second,” Neha said, referring to the video showing how the telescope unwraps itself on the 14-day journey.

In another wing at FCC’s conference center was Louis M. Huzella, a local small animal relief veterinarian who also works for the National Institutes of Health.

Before one of his classes Wednesday, Huzella said he appreciated questions from middle schoolers and helping them learn more about veterinary science.

“It’s exposing them to things they’ve never heard about, and providing them perspective on veterinarians that they might not have thought about before,” he said.

Some of those topics included preventing the transmission of diseases like rabies, vets who serve both small and large animals, and diagnosing various diseases seen in animals.

One of the hands-on classes was taught by Sandy McCombe Waller, Frederick Community College’s associate vice president for academic affairs and dean of career programs.

Waller previously spent more than 20 years at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine. She showed classes how to properly document a crime scene and how to extract DNA from test tubes and then apply that to a criminal investigation.

She’s been at FCC for about six months and enjoyed teaching the kids Wednesday.

“It was great fun. They had great questions,” Waller said. “It was fun to get people very early on that are thinking about these careers, so that they can plan in high school what to take.”

Some students asked those kinds of questions, including what classes to take and which schools are good for criminal science and lab work.

“They’re way ahead of where I ever was, thinking what are the best colleges,” Waller said. “Even to know, I want to be a microbiologist ... I think it speaks to the school system. They’re doing a great job.”

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Steve Bohnel is the county government reporter for the Frederick News-Post. He can be reached at He graduated from Temple University, with a journalism degree in May 2017, and is a die-hard Everton F.C. fan.

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