Last year, 65 teams of Iowa high school students participated in FIRST Tech Challenge, working in teams to design, build and program robots to compete against each other.
This academic year, that number has more than doubled, thanks to a boost from the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council’s “Scale-Up” initiative.
The initiative aims to bring proven, quality STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs to schools and other educational facilities in every corner of the state.
Last spring, the council invited established programs from Iowa and beyond to apply to be selected as a “Scale-Up Project,” and receive funding and support via six newly established regional network hubs.
“We wanted something swift to improve STEM education in our state,” says Jeff Weld, director of the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership and executive director of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. “We knew that there were some wonderful programs in our state — programs that are tried and true, that inspire kids and improve their academic achievement — so we said, let’s find those projects and grow them.”
The council was overwhelmed with more than 900 applications. They selected 12, including FIRST Tech Challenge, then invited educators to apply for support to bring one or more into a club or classroom for the 2012–13 academic year.
Thanks to support from Rockwell Collins, FIRST Tech Challenge had already seen rapid growth since the University of Iowa brought the program to the state in 2009, says Rebecca Whitaker, affiliate partner for the FIRST Tech Challenge in Iowa.
After being selected as a Scale-Up Project, she adds, “we were able to get to communities we had not had a presence in, including rural communities and home-school students.”
In addition to being an affiliate partner for FIRST Tech Challenge, Whitaker oversees the implementation of all Scale-Up projects in southeastern Iowa through her role as the manager for the state’s Southeast STEM Region, an area that encompasses 66 school districts in parts of 17 counties. Cedar Rapids and Iowa City are both a part of this region.
In the 2012–13 school year, approximately $240,000 has been distributed to 139 organizations in the region, Whitaker says. About half of the STEM Scale-Up projects in the region are being implemented during the school day to supplement other instruction, while the other half are extracurricular activities, she says.
“With these programs, the learning of the students becomes more efficient,” Whitaker says. “Hands-on learning helps students grasp difficult concepts. For example, when it comes to physics, if you can see how the center of gravity affects a robot, you’re going to understand that a lot more than if you just have someone describe it to you.”
Popular Scale-Up programs in this region include FIRST Tech Challenge; FIRST Lego League, a robotics competition for ages 9 to 14; the Corridor STEM Initiative, a program that implements Engineering is Elementary programming from the Museum of Science in Boston; and A World in Motion, a K-12 classroom program.
The Scale-Up program will be repeated for the 2013–14 school year, though not necessarily with the same 12 programs as this year. The council has received a new batch of applications. Selections will be posted this spring, then educators will be able to apply for funding for programs they want to bring to their students.
Weld says he’s pleased with the results of the program in its first year, and hopes that it grows in future years.
“It’s an enormous rush to think that in one year’s time, we’ve got 40,000 kids across the state doing these engineering and other STEM programs that hadn’t had access before this year,” Weld says. “Those kids are going to come out of these experiences thinking that STEM stuff is pretty cool, and that positive perspective is going to lead them to perform better and stay with it.”