Air Force STEM team wins first place at HENAAC College Bowl event

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – The Air Force STEM team, led by the Air Force Research Laboratory, recently won first place at the HENAAC College Bowl powered by Great Minds in STEM, held in Pasadena, California. Each team member received a $500 scholarship. This achievement marks the first time that a government/military organization has won first place since the competition began in 2000.

The annual competition, a two-day event with 300 students from across the country, is part of the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC). Great Minds in STEM is a non-profit organization that promotes science, technology, engineering and math education and provides opportunities to students and professionals of all ages and levels.

This year’s competition featured 24 sponsors from government and industry including NASA, the Navy, Sandia National Labs and Lockheed Martin. Each sponsor brought three representatives (a coach, co-coach and volunteer judge) to the College Bowl.

Prior to the competition, the staff set up informational tables where students interacted with recruiters and learned about employment opportunities. Following brief interviews, each team drafted members. After the teams formed, the students competed in “interactive fast-paced challenge[s] that required quick thinking, creativity and teamwork,” according to the GMiS website (

Miguel Maldonado, an AFRL branch chief for fuels and energy, served as a judge. Back in the early 2000s, he coached the Air Force team. He says he decided to volunteer again for this event since he enjoys working with students. Maldonado describes the College Bowl as an exciting event that brings young people together to achieve a common goal. He explained that the team members, who are initially strangers, end up like family as they work through the challenges.

Rey Febo, a systems engineer for Air Force Material Command, served as the team’s coach. He says he immediately agreed to assume this role even though he had no idea what coaching the event entailed.

“My motivation is always to be helpful to our mission of bringing the best and brightest to our doorsteps,” he explains.

Javier Rodriquez, an AFRL engineer, served alongside Febo as the team’s co-coach. Rodriguez, a recent college graduate from California, attended last year’s College Bowl where he met Bryan Stevens, who leads AFRL’s recruiting team. This interaction led to a job interview, a full time position and a cross-country move.

During the event, Rodriguez explained to the students that he was once just a participant in this event. “It’s not a long stretch,” he explained. “It’s possible for each one of you to end up where I am now.”

“The College Bowl is unique in that it allows students to showcase a different side to recruiters,” Rodriguez explains.

He says that traditional recruiting activities only allow students to highlight their academic performance.

With this type of event, “They get to show their creative side by working in teams and solving problems in novel ways,” he affirms. This is a fitting way to evaluate someone’s abilities for any type of position involving science and engineering, particularly in research, he says.

“If [an individual] can bring something different to the table and think outside of the box, then that is ultimately the type of employee that benefits a research laboratory,” he asserts.


Prior to the event, the coaches and volunteer judges receive instructions and guidance. The competition has five rounds where teams solve various challenges. The first day begins with quick interview sessions – short one-on-one meetings with insightful questions. After the coaches and judges briefly present their organizations, students describe themselves and outline their skill sets.

During these mini interviews, Febo says that he evaluated students’ “inner drive,” a quality he describes as their “dedication to excellence.” He also paid attention to interpersonal communication skills since he sought active listeners who showed respect to others. Ultimately, he says he wanted team members who were flexible, reliable and responsible.

Based on the responses provided, I could tell [who] “would drive ideas, capture everyone’s attention, and [which students] were reliable and focused on mission accomplishment,” he explained.

Rodriguez says that he sought students who were confident and outspoken, those who were not afraid to express their thoughts and opinions. We selected students who had hobbies or interests that indicated they would be comfortable on stage, he explained.

Maldonado says he mainly looked for enthusiasm since “the event is about being outgoing.” “You also want [individuals] who will take ownership,” he explains. “Leaders who will guide others and get things done.”

Following these interviews, the teams announced their draft picks. The students drafted to the Air Force STEM team received white lab coats to wear during the competition.

After the teams assembled, the coaches interact with the students to polish their resumes for the first round. The judges evaluate these resumes and award points based on quality and set criteria.

The next three rounds involved scenarios in harvesting energy, designing facilities and sustaining life, all of which related to the theme “Journey into the Rain Forest.”

“Each challenge [required] students to get up on stage and present a solution to a problem,” says Rodriguez.

Febo and Rodriquez said that the team brainstormed ideas each time they received a new scenario. When the ideas seemed to be taking shape, “We devised an execution plan and cut them loose,” said Febo.

While observing the team’s progress, he noted that sometimes the members worked one idea all together or divided the task into several parts. In the end, the coaches made sure the ideas maintained connectivity for final integration.

“We always did a final walk through of their presentation in minutes before the preparation time ended,” says Febo.

During the competition, the coaches aimed to “ensure unit cohesion and buy in from all members,” he explained. We also captured the ideas coming from the more introverted members. The judges awarded points based on presentation quality and team participation.

After the skits, each team selected one representative for the final round, a science trivia game. Ultimately, the Air Force STEM team won all five rounds.

“We had a well-rounded group of individuals,” says Febo. He explained that two students stood out due to their intensity, intelligence and assertiveness.

Rodriguez characterized these students as effective leaders saying they were outspoken and inclusive of others. They had team spirit, he says, citing the fact that they pushed forward and showed resiliency even under pressure.

These outgoing women took charge and led the team, said Maldonado. He asserted that several team members, including the two “standouts” expressed an interest in working for AFRL. They seemed very enthusiastic about wanting to pursue [careers] in science and research, he explained.

Maldonado said the Air Force plans to attend the 2019 HENAAC College Bowl to defend its title and have a great time interacting with the students.

“It’s critical for us to attend these conferences and engage in recruiting activities,” he says. “We must make sure that [young people] are aware of who we are and what we do here [at AFRL].” He asserts that spreading the AFRL message is critical to creating our future pipeline.”