WASHINGTON — It reaches one in five Iowa students from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade. It consumes millions of dollars in state money. It is led by 45 of Iowa’s top educators and employers.
And the Iowa STEM program has seemingly been successful enough to bring Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds to Washington for a two-day visit to a national STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) conference. The exposition at the Washington Conference Center was held to promote STEM programs in different states and to shine a spotlight on states with success stories.
Reynolds said Iowa tops the list of such successes.
“The model we put in place will be celebrating three years this year, and in that short timeframe we’ve really become a national model,” she told The Gazette. “Other states have traveled to Iowa to see the infrastructure we’ve put in place. We’ve even had teams from China and Japan come ... We want to make sure that no matter where a student is in Iowa, they have access to a STEM program.”
Created in 2011 through an executive order by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, the initiative consists of nine specific, state-sanctioned curricula that are estimated to reach 100,000 students. Reynolds co-chairs a state STEM advisory council, which includes University of Iowa President Sally Mason, Rockwell Collins CEO Kelly Ortberg, Howard-Winneshiek Community Schools Superintendent John Carver and University of Northern Iowa President William Ruud.
A number Eastern Iowa schools are involved in the programs, which typically use unconventional classroom methods to engage students, such as teaching prekindergarten through eighth grade students to learn engineering by challenging them to design, build and present a vehicle.
Reynolds devoted her hour-long presentation to a simple description of Iowa’s STEM program, focusing on the long-term employment opportunities it can create. STEM-related job opportunities are expected to increase by 16 percent in Iowa over the next decade.
“One of the most exciting outcomes of the initiative has been giving children the opportunity to get a real-world experience in their facility,” she said.
The initiative has its obstacles. Reynolds said Iowa needs more qualified teachers in rural communities, as well as more teachers entering the workforce who are qualified to teach STEM programs. And she said states such as Utah are devoting healthy appropriations to their own STEM efforts.
Still, she praised the bipartisan nature of the STEM program in Iowa, passed by a divided General Assembly and continuing to be funded at about $5 million per year for three straight fiscally turbulent years. The estimate of 100,000 students across the state being engaged in some kind of a STEM program is 2 1/2 times the original estimate of 40,000 three years ago.
“We have tremendous momentum,” she said.
Reynolds, who was named a “top 10 rising star” in politics by the Washington Post in 2013, brushed off a moderator’s question about future political aspirations, saying she preferred to focus on her current job. Reynolds last year passed up a chance to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by the retiring Democrat Tom Harkin.