From programs to playhouses, STEM remains focus

By Robin Wojtanik

The Tri-City community benefits from both grass-roots and professional efforts to spread awareness of STEM concepts, projects and ideas in the region.

[blockquote quote=”It’s vital to get kids interested in STEM topics early in their education journey if they are to continue on that path into adulthood.” source=”Jillian Cadwell” align=”right” max_width=”300px”]

From small ideas with the potential to make a big impact, to large projects affecting thousands, there is a strong push by nonprofits to make today’s youth aware of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – collectively known as STEM. The local drive ties into a national effort to increase the number of Americans proficient in these fields.

The Mid-Columbia STEM Network is working to advance awareness of the wide array of STEM jobs available right in the Tri-Cities and to overcome what’s known as the STEM skills gap. Simply put, this is the separation between the jobs available and the qualified work force to fill them.

The network’s annual budget is $225,000, with the majority raised from businesses across the state, outside of the Mid-Columbia, thanks to a partnership with the state STEM group based in Seattle.

One of the ways the network is working to close the gap is through its pilot program, STEM Like ME!, or SLM.

Targeted to middle schoolers, SLM addresses the immediate disparity of students pursuing STEM subjects as they prepare to enter high school.

Through this program, the nonprofit brings STEM careers to life by scheduling one-day visits at middle schools in the greater Tri-City school districts. During these sessions, STEM professionals meet with students in small groups and tell them about the education and experience needed to find employment in their current field.

These mentor volunteers also bring a hands-on demonstration or depiction of their jobs for the students to more easily connect with. Organizers hope the effort will inspire students to consider a STEM career and register for more challenging STEM courses at the high school level.

The SLM program recently received a $15,000 National Governor’s Association Policy Academy grant after being named a Learning Lab by the office of Gov. Jay Inslee.

STEM Like ME! is one of 22 career-related programs in the state set for study on its successes in career-connected learning. The governor’s office is working with Washington STEM, based in Seattle, and the state Workforce Board to evaluate and identify best practices to create more work experience for Washington’s youth, especially in STEM careers.

“We are delighted that a program that is uniquely Tri-Cities, designed by local STEM educators and professionals, is being shared across the state,” said Deb Bowen, executive director of the Mid-Columbia STEM Network.

Bowen delivered a presentation on STEM Like ME! at the Governor’s Summit on Career-Connected Learning in May in Redmond and at regional sites throughout the state, including the campus of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

First established in 2008, and known exclusively at that time as the Washington State STEM Education Foundation, or WSSEF, the Richland-based nonprofit has a vision of becoming a national model for support in STEM education.

The group sees STEM literacy as a building block for all career fields. It focuses on critical thinking and collaboration, beneficial skills that are applicable to all disciplines.

The WSSEF was one of the organizations behind the establishment of the region’s STEM-focused public school, Delta High, a collaborative effort between public and private partnerships drawing students on a lottery-based system in the Kennewick, Pasco and Richland school districts.

After operating for years within Columbia Basin College buildings in Richland, the school got its own new building on Broadmoor Boulevard in Pasco, opening for the 2015-16 school year. It enrolls about 400 high school students annually.

The WSSEF eventually became a local network for Washington STEM, which resulted in its second name, the Mid-Columbia STEM Network. Using support from the statewide nonprofit, the foundation expanded its reach, providing additional STEM resources to the local community.

As proof you don’t need a large budget or board of directors to also impact students in STEM concepts, Jillian Cadwell is seeking community support on her effort to build a series of energy-efficient playhouses at locations throughout the Tri-Cities.

She was inspired by the playhouses available on both the Washington and Oregon sides of Bonneville Lock and Dam. Those houses teach young visitors about multiple concepts, including environmental stewardship.

It’s an idea Cadwell wants to replicate in the Tri-Cities to teach students about energy and water efficiency.

By providing these concepts in a playhouse, Cadwell expects students will be entertained while also learning something.

“The big piece is hitting the kids early with these STEM ideas because I feel like that would have changed how I would have looked at my career possibilities, if I had known about things like this earlier,” she said.

One goal behind the demonstration house is to offer the playhouses to Tri-City area grade schools to use on their campuses. Cadwell has found quick support from Deidre Holmberg, principal of Rosalind Franklin STEM Elementary School.

Holmberg envisions an entire neighborhood of houses on the campus of the Pasco school. Cadwell expects to provide a whole host of technologies within one playhouse, purchased from a mass market retailer.

Using community support and in-kind donations, the roof of the initial house is likely to feature solar shingles and energy-saving skylights. The interior will have the ability to switch out different insulation materials so students can test out options to discover which is most energy-efficient. Also inside the playhouse, a play kitchen using Energy Star model appliances will show students how to conserve power and water.

Cadwell is reaching out to her contacts within the community to outfit the home with energy-efficient windows, a gutter system and rain barrels. Water collected could even be used for a school garden. The feature Cadwell is most effusive about is a digital monitor that could track energy inputs from the solar shingles, as well as the amount of rainwater collected in the barrel. The monitor would display results in real time for students to observe and analyze. Signs will also be displayed within the houses telling visitors how to save energy in each part of the home, with the idea that these tips will be brought back into a child’s home life.

Cadwell is no stranger to introducing students to STEM concepts, as she serves as STEM outreach consultant for academic affairs at Washington State University Tri-Cities. Despite this tie, Cadwell bought the prototype playhouse on her own and is spearheading this project outside of her role with the university.

It’s something Cadwell is passionate about, as she felt she wasn’t fully aware of STEM subjects and careers even after graduating high school and starting college.

“It’s vital to get kids interested in STEM topics early in their education journey if they are to continue on that path into adulthood,” she said.

It’s also why Cadwell wants to offer a mentoring component to the energy-efficient playhouses, allowing these advisors to work with students on experiments using data gathered from the house. And thanks to her prior experience with teaching, Cadwell will offer lesson plans for teachers who use Next Generation Science Standards, research-based K-12 science standards.

Cadwell’s desire to bring these energy-efficient playhouses to the Tri-Cities will require the involvement of organizations and community groups to be successful. She sees the first home as simply a jumping off point for “better, future playhouses” to be designed around. As a passionate believer that success in STEM brings success elsewhere in life, Cadwell is still seeking volunteers to lend their time, talents and company resources to make a wide range of playhouses available at many sites throughout the Tri-Cities.

To get involved, search for the group “Energy-Efficient Playhouses” on Facebook.

To take part in the STEM Like ME! program in the upcoming school year, contact the Mid-Columbia STEM Network, or 509-420-9316.

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