(TNS) — WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — Jamont Matthews discovered human-like avatars in virtual reality and how scientists use video game technology for training inside the Air Force Research Laboratory.

The 16-year-old Dunbar High School junior and about 60 of his Dayton Public Schools peers on Thursday roamed four AFRL directorates at Wright-Patterson, exploring 3-D biofedelic modeling to electron microscopes revealing a hidden world.

"It's a surprise to see that there's really laboratories where they design and study things that people don't really know about it," said Matthews, who intends to attend college and become an aerospace engineer. "It opens my eyes to see a lot more careers and education to learn. ... To see everyone doing well in their careers, it pushes me more to be successful in life."

The seventh- through 12th-graders toured AFRL as part of the White House National Week at the Labs initiative at 70 places throughout the country.

In his first visit to Wright-Patterson, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work urged the group of African-American male students to consider a career in science, technology, engineering and math or in public service.

"We are developing some very cool stuff," Work said, mentioning spacecraft that peer through clouds, exoskeletons that make humans stronger with more endurance and robots meant to do "some of the most dangerous tasks, taking humans off the battlefield."

The first-ever lab week was in partnership with the White House Council on Women and Girls and the My Brother's Keeper initiative.

"For all of the things that we do in the Department of Defense, the satellites, the stealth bombers, the submarines, the most important secret weapon we have are the young men and women who join the Department of Defense and our military and serve their nation," Work told reporters at a press conference inside the Air Force Institute of Technology. "We want to be part of this initiative to give every young man and women of color the opportunity because persistent gaps continue to exist in providing these opportunities."

Women comprised 24 percent of the STEM workforce in the United States in 2011, according to the Department of Commerce. African-Americans comprised 6 percent of the workforce and Hispanics 7 percent in 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

At AFRL, of the 2,931 federal civilian scientists and engineers, 12.2 percent, or 358, are white females, and 14.2 percent, or 415, are minority men and women, the agency reported Thursday. AFRL's civilian-dominated workforce has more than 10,000 employees, including military personnel and civilian contractors.

Defense Department figures were not immediately available Thursday. Trischelle Campbell, a Dunbar High School guidance counselor, said the students' visit Thursday piqued their attention and showed "they can see geometry isn't just about graduating high school."

Work, the second highest-ranking civilian leader at the Pentagon was set to tour the National Air and Space Intelligence Center and AFRL in closed-door briefings. Stephen P. Welby, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, also toured the Miami Valley base.

Despite the pressure of defense spending cuts, Pentagon leaders have protected more than $12 billion for research and development in the latest budget, Work said. The United States has a technological edge over potential military adversaries, however that gap has "narrowed a little bit," he said.

"That's one area we know we will not cut (spending) because we know we're in such a competitive environment and it's important for us to remain at the forefront of technology," he said.

Defense spending faces the prospect of automatic cuts, or sequestration, under a decade-long agreement reached with the Budget Control Act of 2011. The Pentagon has outlined spending $100 billion above budget caps in future years.

"We still have the specter of sequestration handing over our heads," he said. ".... If we lose that money, we will be very concerned."

©2016 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.