Some will do it with underwater robots. Others will use computers that make 3D images. Still others will design brand-new products or experiment with creative teaching techniques.
Innovation. Creativity. Effectiveness. Those are some hallmarks of K-12 programs receiving a total of $2.4 million in grants from the nonprofit, privately funded Washington STEM, created to boost the quality of education in “STEM” subjects — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.
The 15 grants, to be formally announced Monday, make up the first set of allocations from the statewide group that hopes to raise $100 million in 10 years.
Grants range from $5,718 to help struggling middle-school students in Neah Bay to $628,700 in services to help Bellevue School District develop STEM-focused curricula that could be adapted by schools across the state.
Over the past year, Washington STEM has raised nearly $20 million, with Microsoft, Boeing, McKinstry and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as major donors.
The goal: to better prepare today’s students for today’s — and tomorrow’s — jobs, and to foster a spirit of innovation essential to advancements in science and technology.
The need is immediate and critical, said Washington STEM vice-chair Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel and senior vice president.
“We [in Washington] have one of widest gaps in the country between technology jobs being created and students being equipped with the skills needed to fill those jobs,” Smith said.
Illustrating the gap, said Smith, is statewide unemployment that is 4.6 percent for workers with a four-year college degree but more than 10 percent for those with only a high-school education.
Surveys show many employers are struggling to find job candidates with basic math skills. A state study projects that over the next five years, Washington schools are expected to graduate only enough credentialed students to fill 67 percent of the state’s anticipated job openings in engineering and 56 percent in computer science.
A key priority of Washington STEM’s grants is to boost technology education for students of color, who now make up less than 5 percent of those earning college degrees in STEM fields.
To maximize its effectiveness, the organization is making two types of grants. Eleven of the grants, called “entrepreneurial investments,” range from $5,718 to $23,625 and will go to schools, districts and programs experimenting with an array of teaching and mentoring methods.
Four larger allocations, ranging from $475,000 to $628,700, are called “portfolio investments” and will reach a greater number of students over multiyear periods, some by promoting a wider use of proven teaching techniques.
In addition to the Bellevue School District award, the portfolio investments are:
• $475,000 to bring Teach For America to the Puget Sound area. This national program seeks to address educational inequities by recruiting outstanding college graduates to teach for two years in public schools, particularly in areas with low-income families. In its initial year of the grant, Teach for America is expected to benefit 1,000 students in Seattle and Federal Way.
• $593,259 to Washington State MESA for work including an expansion of its “Ninth Grade Bridge” program, which provides math mentoring and tutoring, including all-day sessions for three weeks between eighth and ninth grades. The grant will allow MESA, which has been in service in Washington for 28 years, to expand that program to at least 500 students through six regional centers across the state. In addition, it will train teachers to reach another 1,500 students in math and science classrooms. MESA’s programs target girls and students of color, groups underrepresented in technology careers.
• $600,000 to Technology Access Foundation ( TAF ) Academy. This grant will enable new instructional approaches at the existing TAF Academy in Federal Way and support the expansion to a second TAF Academy anticipated to open in Renton in 2012. It also would help set up an after-school “TechStart” technology program at an elementary school that would be a feeder school to the Renton academy.
Trish Dziko, TAF’s executive director, said academy students work in teams to develop technology-based solutions to real-world problems, with teachers acting as coaches.
For example, 10th-graders last spring looked at a variety of common health concerns and designed products including contact lenses that could gradually release glaucoma medication, and a tool to help repair scar tissue after breast-cancer surgery.
At Neah Bay, the smallest STEM grant will go to support a mentoring program in public schools on the Makah Reservation.
The “Catalyst Corps” program pairs successful Neah Bay High School students with Markishtum Middle School students and will include two science-oriented field trips, with one on a marine research vessel.
In the Clark County town of La Center, a $10,560 STEM grant will allow a middle school to offer a science curriculum called “SeaPerch,” developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in which students build and operate remotely controlled underwater vehicles
Washington STEM CEO Julia Novy-Hildesley said the urgent need for STEM programs can be seen in international studies that show the United States is not a leader, but rather in the middle of the pack, in student performance in math and science.
“At our core, we believe we’re the most innovative, entrepreneurial country in the world, and that is what will take us forward in the 21st century,” Novy-Hildesley said.
But that belief cannot become a reality, she said, without a commitment to effective education.