Thomas R. O'Donnell

STEM goes for the state title

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2013 at 2:59 pm
Iowa Governor's STEM Advisory Council

Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council

There was a lot going on in downtown Des Moines on March 5. At the Wells Fargo Arena, the state boys basketball tournament was attracting droves of fans, screaming at the top of their lungs.

Next door, at the Veterans Memorial Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center (whew!), a couple hundred educators, industry representatives and state officials gathered for the second Iowa STEM Summit, organized by the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council.

There wasn’t screaming, but just as much cheering.

Sometimes the sessions and the tweets coming out of the summit had the quality of a high school pep rally/self esteem-building session. Buck up, STEM educators! We really DO like you and want you to succeed!

More than 300 people were registered for talks, discussions and a free lunch. (It was delicious, especially dessert.) Weather trimmed the actual attendance.

I had no real reason to go, except an interest in the subject. Partly, it’s my belief that not enough of the science going on in Iowa gets attention. Partly, it’s that I have a 14-year-old who’s a consumer of programs these folks run and promote.

And my impression, both from the summit and from observations, is there are a LOT of programs out there designed to interest kids in STEM. There’s FIRST LEGO League (which my son does), FIRST Tech Challenge, Math Counts, Project Lead the Way and much more. Sometimes it has the quality of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.

In a brief chat as the summit started, Ben Allen conceded as much – a bit. Allen, the outgoing University of Northern Iowa president, ended his term as co-chair of the advisory council at the meeting. Vermeer Manufacturing Corp.’s Mary Andringa will take his place. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds is the other chairperson.

Last year, the council chose a dozen STEM education programs “scale-up” grants. Science educators including schools, area eduation agencies and science centers can apply for grants to finance their participation in the scale-up programs. The 2012 programs included LEGO League and Project HOPE (Healthcare, Occupations, Preparation and Exploration) out of the University of Iowa.

When I told Allen there seemed to be a plethora of STEM programs out there – both scale-up programs and others – he allowed that the council was focusing on a smaller set, only nine for 2013 instead of 12. (They started with around 40 candidates.) Some are new, like Carolina Curriculum Company (from Carolina Biological Supply Co.). Some continued, like CASE (Curriculum for Agriscience Education) run by the Iowa Future Farmers of America Foundation.

But others were dropped, including LEGO League and the Corridor STEM Initiative out of Kirkwood Community college. That’s not to say these programs will die without the scale-up money. Rather, the scale-up funds covered fixed costs that kept educational institutions from starting the programs. Hopefully, the schools, museums, clubs and volunteers can keep them going.

Other observations:

The keynote speaker, Boone native Richard Longworth of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, made some good points about whether Midwestern states like Iowa are adapting to the changing economy.

It was no surprise when he noted that the state is among the top five in attracting out-of-state students to its colleges, but in the top four in exporting graduates. “That’s not much of a tribute to your economy,” he added.

Longworth tripped up a bit, I think, he suggested (in response to a question) Iowa should capitalize on its knowledge of plants and animals. I ruefully tweeted:

Time to embrace plant&animal tech… Been doing that: molybio, plant sciences at iowa state. Nothing new. Why isn’t it paying off?

I regret that tweet a bit now. Iowa has been doing that, but I was wrong in saying it hasn’t paid off. Ag technology is all around in Iowa, from the seed company labs to cattle cloning. That doesn’t mean the states don’t need more workers trained in biotech, but it has to be broader than that.

There was a lot of talk about “systemic” change, meaning it’s not enough to have a couple programs to gin up interest in STEM. There have to be follow-up programs to provide education at progressively advanced levels. As one participant noted, “You can’t give a startup grant to one teacher in a third-grade class and expect to see improvement” in overall STEM achievement.

In a closing session, Beth Kulow, Southwest Regional STEM Hub manager, made a similar point: STEM education should be incorporated into everyday activities, not segregated into after-school programs for talented and gifted kids.

As the father of two TAG kids (one in college), I have to agree. End the STEM ghetto.

If you were at the summit, tell me what you think.

  1. […] League, that are designed to engage and attract students to technical fields, and holding annual summits of educators, administrators and business […]

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