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In recent years there has been an accelerating collaboration between the U.S. Navy and educators in St. Maryís County to guide interested students into programs that prepare them for some of the most challenging and highest-paid jobs in this community.

This begins for students as young as 9 and includes mid-career adults doing post-graduate work at universities affiliated with the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center.

The benefit of this is obvious. Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and the military contracting firms associated with it, are looking for a qualified, stable workforce that wants to call Southern Maryland home. The community then has the advantage of keeping its best and brightest close to home.

So the push is on to offer programs that will give students entry into the high-tech world that powers the entire economy of St. Maryís. This means offering science, technology, engineering and math classes that are both challenging and have a real-world connection to the work at Pax River.

The Navy has many partners in this. Among them are the public and private elementary, middle and high schools. They also include the College of Southern Maryland, St. Maryís College of Maryland as well as the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center and most of the universities that offer programs there.

Before aiming at undergraduate and post-graduate science and engineering degrees, though, younger students must be inspired and prepared for these education and career choices. It begins with the youngest STEM students in fourth grade and continues through high school.

Next school year there will be a new addition to these programs — the National Flight Academy. The Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division at Pax River has given $250,000 in seed money to set up flight simulators, an air traffic control lab and a mission command center in a classroom at the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center in Leonardtown.

The NAWCAD money comes in the form of a STEM grant to The Patuxent Partnership to buy the software and equipment for students to learn how to fly aircraft, manage air traffic control and perform missions similar to operations at Pax River. School officials said this Aviation Classroom Experience of the National Flight Academy will allow students to conduct virtual missions and compete in real time against other students across the nation.

Adding this to the offerings of the St. Maryís public schools is a no-brainer, but it will take a lot of staff training and professional development to make sure itís more than just an in-school video game session.

Thatís all part of the planning for the flight academy. And it must continue to be part of all the programs intended to educate and train young people for careers associated with Pax River. They must be working as advertised. Thatís what will guarantee there is value to all this for students and their future employers.