A Homegrown STEM Challenge Goes Statewide in Pennsylvania

The idea began with a conversation over coffee between a pair of friends and former colleagues, and in less than five years, it turned into a statewide phenomenon. "What if we could design a program that provides materials and training for educators and helps generate student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)?" they asked. That was at the heart of the conversation early in 2010 between Amy Cribbs and Jill Jones, who share a passion for science education dating back to their tenures working at Carnegie Science Center.

The problem they were addressing is serious. There is increasing concern in the Pittsburgh area--where both are based--that job growth in STEM-related fields is outpacing the size of the workforce. According to statistics published by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and developed by the Pennsylvania Center for Workforce Information and Analysis, postings for high-tech jobs in the metropolitan Pittsburgh area grew 40 percent between July 2013 and July 2014, while job postings in all industries grew just 3.4 percent during that span.

Finding capable workers for jobs in STEM fields is a challenge nationwide. The National Math + Science Initiative believes that the U.S. may be short as many as three million high-skilled workers by 2018. Two-thirds of those jobs, the NMSI says, will require at least some post-secondary education.

Jones, general manager of Fisher Science Education – the Thermo Fisher Scientific brand that supplies STEM materials to educators – and Cribbs, career education and academic events coordinator at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Pittsburgh, joined forces to develop a STEM Design Challenge for students in grades 4-8. Little did they know that, in just four years, the initiative would make an impact across their home state.

“We talked about what we could do to help teachers and students understand what STEM is,” said Jones. “We had an idea about a competition that would help students develop critical 21st-century learning skills.”

The STEM Design Challenge is, at minimum, a start: encouraging students to apply STEM skills and use K'NEX building products to accomplish a goal. The event was piloted with 37 teams from 24 schools in Allegheny County in 2010, challenging students to build a contraption with K'Nex that could launch, roll or otherwise move a ping pong ball four feet. Since then, the Challenge has grown rapidly; it is now open to the entire state of Pennsylvania. In 2014, 600 teams representing 19 of the 29 intermediate units in the state competed in regional events challenging students to construct an environmentally friendly “people-mover" out of K'Nex. Top ranking teams then competed in a state championship that was kicked off by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, K'Nex CEO Michael Araten and senior officials from Thermo Fisher Scientific. 

As it turns out, students who participate once are eager to continue, including the K’Nexperts, a team from the David E. Williams Middle School in Coraopolis. The four students, who are now in 9th grade, entered the competition each of the last four years. They placed first in the 2013 local competition, designing the Spartan Sweep, a robot that collected trash and placed it in a storage bin. In 2014, the K’Nexperts earned honorable mention at the state championship, thanks to their Montour Metro, designed to transport people over mountains and water using natural gas and hydroelectricity.

For students like Nicholas Nazak of the K’Nexperts, the Challenge offers a unique team-building opportunity, and a chance to discover interest in STEM subjects that they can pursue beyond grade school.

“The most exciting thing about being part of the STEM Design Challenge is seeing your idea and design actually becoming a working model and accomplishing the challenge of the competition,” Nicholas said. “Involvement in the Challenge has inspired me to continue learning about the field of engineering, particularly robotics.”

But before students like Nicholas are able to take full advantage, their teachers need to be equipped to guide them. At the heart of the program is a teacher-training model funded by Thermo Fisher Scientific, which designed a full-day teacher training program for schools across the state.

“We asked the teachers to become the students, so they could understand the challenges that their students will face,” said Jones. “Watching the teachers sit on the floor and race cars, or argue with each other about what they want to name their project, that’s when you really feel good about what you do. The teachers get it when they do it.”

“We’re working every day to ensure our children in Pennsylvania are ready to learn, ready to grow and ready to succeed because our students are our future,” said Governor Corbett. “Companies like K’NEX and Thermo Fisher Scientific, and organizations like Allegheny Intermediate Unit are at the heart of what makes Pennsylvania great.”

The event's organizers hope to grow the Challenge so that every Pennsylvania intermediate unit and student in grades 4-8 participate. Jones said there has been discussion about developing similar competitions focused specifically on chemistry or biology, taking the Challenge to the high school level. Beyond that, the objective is to replicate the program nationally; pilot programs have already begun around Boston, Chicago and in North Carolina.

Thermo Fisher, which invested more than 1,100 volunteer hours and more than $62,000 to expand the program in Pennsylvania in 2014, plans to be right alongside, helping the students, teachers and, by extension, the economic future of the Pittsburgh region.

“Just being out there in the region, and talking to different businesses in STEM fields, we hear concern that there aren’t going to be enough people to fill the jobs that are going to be available,” said Cribbs. “I really give Thermo Fisher credit for getting students excited and interested in STEM.”

"One of the things Amy and I talked about was that STEM was a confusing concept for educators," said Jones. “The training component allows teachers to experience STEM in a meaningful way and make a connection for their students."

The Challenge is vital to the mission of Thermo Fisher Scientific--to enable our customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer, Jones said. "These children will one day be our employees and our customers, making the discoveries that change the world. Everything is circular, and it all connects through this program."

The most exciting thing about being part of the STEM Design Challenge is seeing your idea and design actually becoming a working model and accomplishing the challenge of the competition.”

Nicholas Nazak Student, David E. Williams Middle School
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