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Passion for teaching leads Corps engineer to gifted youth

Mike Alley, civil engineer in the Design Branch at the Alaska District, instructs Jarrett Oney Feb. 18 about a storm water outfall on Kodiak Island. Alley is mentoring Oney who is a local high school student and member of the Anchorage School District Gifted Mentorship Program. Alley's passion for teaching led him to volunteer his time and expertise to the program.

Mike Alley, civil engineer in the Design Branch at the Alaska District, instructs Jarrett Oney Feb. 18 about a storm water outfall on Kodiak Island. Alley is mentoring Oney who is a local high school student and member of the Anchorage School District Gifted Mentorship Program. Alley's passion for teaching led him to volunteer his time and expertise to the program.

PHOTO: Courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska District

One U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- Alaska District employee is influencing future careers in the hard sciences by mentoring Anchorage's most talented high school students. For Mike Alley, coaching youth comes naturally and is an example of his selfless service to the nation.

Alley, a civil engineer in the Design Branch for the Engineering Division, volunteers his time and expertise to the Anchorage School District Gifted Mentorship Program. Currently, he is advising his second local high school apprentice since 2013 about the engineering profession.

"I feel it is a service that I can provide by helping a student out," Alley explained. "They are some of the brightest in the Anchorage School District."

The Army Corps of Engineers recognizes that education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics plays a critical role in enabling the United States to remain an economic and technological leader in the global marketplace.

"Helping to inspire America's youth to pursue careers in STEM fields is the right thing for our nation and an excellent opportunity to give back," said Maj. Gen. Richard Stevens, commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- Pacific Ocean Division, during a town hall meeting Feb. 10 at the Alaska District.

Forget about any personal gains Alley might achieve from leading novices down a path toward a successful engineering career. The part-time youth basketball and Little League Baseball coach has an enthusiasm for teaching that motivates him to help these young minds figure out their futures. 

"I always hop on opportunities to teach," he said. "I wish I had this program when I was in high school."

Eligible students of the mentorship program are juniors and seniors close to high school graduation, and who are beginning their college preparation. In order to participate, they are required to submit an application packet that includes a résumé, references and brief essay about why they want to learn about the career field of their choice. 

The program extends beyond the expertise of the Army Corps of Engineers and into occupations such as art, entrepreneurship, finance, medicine, tourism and more. A high rate of youth continue in those areas after receiving guidance with an established professional, said Jean Poulsen, mentorship coordinator for the school district.

"One of the most exciting things is when an adult steps up to mentor one of these students," she said.

The accepted applicants spend 45 hours with their instructor on a flexible schedule that suits both parties. During that period, they will conduct three interviews with other experts in the area of study, provide a review on an academic journal article and produce a capstone project to be presented in front of their fellow future college undergraduates.

During the placement process, Alley will meet with the scholar interested in engineering, his or her guardian, and Poulsen to discuss expectations and set achievable short-term goals.

"I look at their responses to a career interest survey and job experience, and I try to tailor their mentorship similar to what we do here with our engineer-in-training program," Alley said, referring to the pathway internship for college students and recent college graduates.

His current protégé visits the Alaska District after school for two hours to experience the typical day-to-day duties of a civil engineer. The student also learns about other careers within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While understanding that the budding engineer is at the beginning of his journey, Alley exposes the novice to various aspects of the occupation.

"They need to see all facets of civil engineering," he said. "I'll introduce electrical and mechanical if they have any inkling for that as well."

In 2013, Alley's apprentice did not share the same civil engineering interest, but was captivated by environmental issues. Alley then acted as a liaison for the youth and had her spend time with specialists in the Environmental Engineering Branch at the Alaska District.

"The Corps is very generous with their time," Poulsen said. "There is always an opportunity to meet other engineers working on other projects in that building. That's a really cool thing."

For capstone projects, Alley's first apprentice did a research presentation about the Alaska District's Rapid Optical Screening Tool equipment and the results from an environmental field investigation. By using modeling software, Alley's present protégé is helping to analyze a storm water outfall for the U.S. Coast Guard on Kodiak Island.

"Mike is not just an engineer," Poulsen said. "He's a teacher."

Alley's passion for engineering and teaching benefits the nation, Army Corps of Engineers, Anchorage School District, and most importantly, the students he is taking underneath his wing on their serious endeavors to become the next generation of engineers.

"I want them to enjoy what they do," he said. "That's why I open them up to different experiences here. That's the biggest piece of advice I give them."

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