VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Tiffany Owens doesn’t remember what first sparked her interest in engineering. It may have been the construction equipment she watched with fascination through her grandparents’ car window when they picked her up from elementary school. Perhaps it was the after-school science and technology programs her mother enrolled her and her younger sisters in when they were growing up in Buffalo, New York. Or maybe it was her tendency as a child to take things apart just to see how they worked.
Tiffany Owens doesn’t remember what first sparked her interest in engineering. It may have been the construction equipment she watched with fascination through her grandparents’ car window when they picked her up from elementary school. Perhaps it was the after-school science and technology programs her mother enrolled her and her younger sisters in when they were growing up in Buffalo, New York. Or maybe it was her tendency as a child to take things apart just to see how they worked.
“[In Buffalo], I went to an engineering high school called Hutchinson [Central Technical] High School,” Owens said. “Our mascot was the Engineers. Not the tigers or the bears—we were the Hutch-Tech Engineers.”
At Hutch-Tech, the students were encouraged to select a major, and Owens chose computer electronics. The experience taught her that while she loved working on computers, she did not want to program them. Upon graduation, she went on to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology where she majored in microelectronics engineering—a degree plan that allowed her to study computers with a more hands-on approach. At RIT, she also discovered a passion for reaching out and getting others interested in STEM.
“I always liked being involved and volunteering in my community, so in college I was involved in organizations like the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers,” Owens said.
These organizations participated in STEM outreach activities that allowed Owens to meet professionals in her field, and talk to younger students about engineering.
“I started there and after I graduated, I continued to find ways to be engaged in the STEM community, and to volunteer and serve,” she said.
In January, Owens was recognized by the Department of Defense as the STEM Advocate of the Quarter for the second quarter of fiscal 2020. The award recognizes outstanding STEM education and outreach efforts that further the mission of the Department of Defense.
Owens joined NSWCDD in 2009 but has been a consistent figure in STEM outreach in Richmond, Virginia, and the surrounding area since she relocated there after college. Within her first couple of years with the command, she became involved in Dahlgren’s STEM Outreach Program and led her divisions Bring Your Child to Work Day STEM activities.
She has also volunteered as a Metro Richmond Science Fair project screener and judge for more than a decade.
In 2013, Owens revived a program she had started through her church in 2008 called “Young Engineers and Scientists (YES).” YES exposes school-age children to STEM concepts through workshops, field trips and various projects throughout the year. Owens recruited other STEM professionals to help with the program, which has consistently hosted STEM activities for local children since 2013.
“YES was Tiffany’s idea, and she has spent years rallying around that organization, while also supporting Dahlgren’s STEM initiatives,” said Joycelyn Josey-Harris, a scientist with NSWCDD’s Integrated Combat Systems Department and a member of Owens’ church. “She plants seeds in all kinds of people. She’s great at getting a team together to accomplish whatever task, and she’s fabulous with the kids. She’s excited about STEM, and they pick up on that.
Owens said it is not hard to motivate others to be STEM ambassadors.
“Most people enjoy giving back and working with kids, so I just [remind them] that their contributions and expertise are needed,” she said. “We get a lot of volunteers who are not engineers or mechanical people, but that’s OK. We need people with a variety of skill sets for things like registration, handing out supplies, crowd control—everyone has a place and something they can contribute.”
In 2019 alone, Owens volunteered with several schools and organizations, giving career presentations, and facilitating STEM activities for students and parents. She also represented NSWCDD at STEM events, and on professional panels.
“Ms. Owens is our connection to the Richmond area, and she’s been an extremely active volunteer for many events,” said Michael Young, director of Academic Engagement at NSWCDD. “She’s been a powerful advocate for STEM outreach. She is very creative in finding ways to connect with students, parents and communities. It’s really quite extraordinary. Anyone thing she does, she does extremely well. But when you combine everything together, it’s awesome.”
The mission of NSWCDD’s STEM Outreach Program is to inspire, engage, educate, recruit and ultimately retain a STEM workforce that will meet tomorrow’s naval technology challenges, Young said.
Ensuring the future of the STEM workforce is a responsibility Owens takes seriously.
“I think it’s important to get young people that exposure [so they] know this is a dire need for our country,” she said. “We’re in a constantly evolving world, and their ideas and expertise are going to be needed. One day I’ll be looking to retire, and we need to ensure we have that longevity of STEM professionals who are there to design new systems, and bring in new ideas and approaches.”
Owens said one of the most rewarding and inspiring aspects of outreach is knowing she is providing opportunities for exposure to STEM—and diversity in STEM—that many children may not otherwise have.
“Some kids don’t know what an engineer is,” Owens said. “My first engineering mentor was Ms. Denise. She was an engineer at General Motors, and we had an after-school engineering club where they would come over and mentor us at the school. She was an African American woman engineer, and one of my first visions of diversity in engineering. I still remember her face and how I would look forward to seeing her.”
During an especially memorable outreach engagement at a juvenile detention facility, Owens said she was encouraged by how attentive and receptive the students were during her presentation. As she spoke about her education and career path, many of the students asked her questions about engineering.
“It was a neat experience that I’ll never forget,” she said. “Hopefully, I inspired some students there to make different choices and consider STEM for the future. That’s always my message: ‘Consider STEM.’