Iowa’s STEM programs are growing

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: January 26 2013 | 12:01 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:33 am in
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By Jeffrey Weld

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This winter, fourth-graders at New Hampton Elementary School are tying their math, science and literacy lessons to a common theme: motion. A day at school may catch them calculating velocity, reducing friction, modeling automobile safety, and writing technical reports that bring it all together.

That is STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in the classroom as experts define it: integrated, active, real-world problem solving. Learners in this style of education, according to the Center for Education at the National Research Council, are more creative, collaborative, intelligent and interested in STEM-based careers. STEM classrooms are the incubators for Iowa’s future innovators.

The scene in New Hampton is playing out in more than 800 classrooms and other settings involving 40,000 learners across Iowa this year through the Scale-Up initiative of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council.

There are computer programming contests, agricultural experiments, wind turbine modeling, family STEM festivals, robotics clubs, and more. And they’re happening more often than not in the most STEM-deprived areas of Iowa thanks to the mission of the governor’s advisory council to level the field of opportunity for all Iowa youth.

Iowa’s rapid rise back to leadership in math and science education, with applications to engineering and technology, is an economic and social imperative. Once a leader on national tests, Iowa kids are closer to the middle of the pack these days. In contrast, our economy depends ever increasingly on a steady stream of talent to drive our STEM-based industries, such as bioscience, information technology, and advanced manufacturing, while our lives weave ever more tightly to STEM through health, parenting, energy and food decisions.

Fortunately, the citizens of our state are on board by measure of a recent survey of 2,000 Iowans commissioned by the council. Although only a quarter of respondents had heard of “STEM,” most parents believe math and science are important to their child’s future.

The council’s model, a public-private partnership of regional networks growing proven programs, has earned national recognition. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, co-chair of the council, was recently honored as one of 2012’s Women Leaders in STEM, alongside Sally Ride, DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman, Miss American 2012 Laura Kaeppeler, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell and others, by STEM Connector.

And Iowa is one of four states chosen by the Smithsonian’s National Science Resource Center for piloting a project to connect talent pipelines to career opportunities based on promising STEM practices.

The 40 members of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, plus 300 more leaders consisting of regional managers, boards and various subcommittees, have no intention of resting on our foundation of programs delivered through a regional STEM network.

But the core of the council’s work will continue: bringing the best STEM learning experiences to our youth throughout the state, thanks to a generous $4.7 million appropriation from the Iowa Legislature.

Future innovators such as Waterloo East High School freshman Akina Fitzgerald, teammate on state championship-bound Team 5445 of the scaled-up FIRST Tech Challenge, remind us that lives hang in the balance of our work. “This program has changed my life tremendously because it has helped me become a better person, listen to other people’s opinions, and to find my true self. It takes a lot of time management and teamwork to be able to program the robot. It also takes a certain mindset to be more responsible with achieving a goal,” Akina said.

STEM is growing strong roots in Iowa. Additional information can be found at www.IowaSTEM.gov.

l Jeffrey Weld is Executive Director, Governor’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Advisory Council. Comments: Weld@IowaSTEM.gov

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