NCW will be transformed by new STEM network
North Central Washington is preparing to take a leap forward in providing Science Technology Engineering and Math Education, thanks to the leadership of Wenatchee Valley College in collaboration with several community partners and the Eastmont, Cashmere and Wenatchee school districts.
This is a golden opportunity that will likely transform our valley and the region by creating new opportunities to tap into high-paying careers for our children. It’s going to be an economic supercharger.
Dr. Sue Kane, who teaches biology at WVC, is heading up the effort, along with a team of community leaders.
The Apple STEM Network, as the local collaboration is called, received a $30,000 planning grant from the private nonprofit Washington STEM to develop a local plan to build community awareness of the issues and supercharge STEM education in the region.
STEM education emphasizes an integrated learning approach that combines these four disciplines to provide relevance to the concepts that students are learning, but this approach is doing so much more. STEM literacy inspires students to become creative problem-solvers. So rather than the old-school approach of learning each subject in isolation, STEM learning emphasizes learning through hands-on projects that require students to apply concepts and innovate solutions to real-life problems.
Our state has a huge opportunity to take advantage of STEM skills. Washington ranks first in concentration of STEM jobs but only 46th in participation in science and engineering programs. Kane points out that this gives us the second largest STEM opportunity gap in the country.
This approach is also in alignment with the Next Generation Science standards that will move our educational system, it is hoped, away from having students do prescribed exercises into a more dynamic environment where they are developing creativity in finding solutions.
It’s about creating an entrepreneurial mindset in which curiosity of students is piqued and they learn ways to solve problems and learn from failures. “It’s in the trying that you actually learn,” said Kane.
Kane, who has a doctorate in immunology and infectious disease from South Dakota State University, is the perfect person to lead this effort. She uses STEM approaches in her coursework, including a fascinating DNA project that has WVC students doing primary research analyzing the effects of genetic mutation in DNA damage repair processes.
Fellow WVC professor Steve Stefanides launched the DNA project several years ago and they have teamed up to continue the investigation that allows students to do primary research that gives them a competitive edge when they move on to four-year institutions and post-baccalaureate programs.
This summer, WVC students presented their findings at an undergraduate research conference at Boise State University, alongside students from Stanford, Baylor and other prestigious universities. Kane said they were grilled hard during the process, but received highly complementary reviews of their work.
Washington STEM leaders approached civic leaders in our valley and encouraged them to apply for a STEM grant in the last year or so. Kane, because of her work, was approached to take the lead on the project with WVC as the backbone organization.
Together, they put together a grant application last fall, and on Dec. 1, received word that the Apple Stem Network was one of three winning grants. They’ll spend several months developing a business plan that meets local needs. At that point, they will be in line for a possible $200,000 grant that would be need to be matched by local dollars to fund the project for several years.
One of the exciting aspects is that this network creates a significant opportunity for collaboration between school districts that typically don’t work together on projects. It uses the collective impact model, which is that every partner will retain autonomy but there will be a common vision, lots of communication and aligning of resources where possible.
Already, Kane told me, a teacher Wenatchee High School has expressed interest in having her students participate in the DNA research. That’s the power of collaboration and cooperation.
Kane talked about the possibility of using STEM approaches to drive innovation in the agricultural sector that is so critical to the North Central Washington economy. With issues of water scarcity and the need for sustainability, imagine what would be possible if we could turn our kids loose on finding next-generation solutions.
It’s great to see Wenatchee Valley College at the forefront of this regional collaborative effort. The Apple STEM Network will help us create a more vibrant future for the region by fostering entrepreneurship and creativity.