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After-school robotics program creates 'success story' for middle-schoolers

WEST JORDAN — Joshua Herman watched with mild disappointment as his Lego robot fell apart while being pushed out of a black circle on the ground by another robot.

After some quick repairs, the 15-year-old's luck returned, along with his smile, when his robot emerged victorious in the next sumo-style robot match.

Not far away, eighth-grader Allan Rxtun fist-bumped his teammate after their robot, "Dream Killer," triumphed in a tug-of-war match.

Wednesday was the year-end culmination of a new after-school program in the Jordan School District, where a state grant has allowed three schools to host computer programming and robotics classes for seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders.

"I absolutely love this program," said Joshua, a ninth-grader at West Jordan Middle School. "I get to be creative every day after school and be able to learn more and create new ways of solving simple problems. I really enjoy technology, and I'll probably try to continue this as much as I can."

It's one of several programs overseen by the STEM Action Center, Utah's coordinating agency for new science, technology, engineering and math opportunities for students, an effort led by the Governor's Office of Economic Development to better prepare them for college and a career.

For the next two years, West Jordan, Joel P. Jensen and Oquirrh Hills middle schools will continue to benefit from the $700,000 grant. This year, the program included roughly 180 students — most of them from low-income families — and is expected to double in size next year, according to Sandy Riesgraf, spokeswoman for the Jordan School District.

"The success story is we took a group of kids that normally probably wouldn't have been too interested in STEM, and they've gotten really excited about it and good at this stuff," Riesgraf said. "I know the governor wanted (the STEM Action Center) to promote STEM, and this is it at work, and it is making a difference."

Charolette Whiteside, a math teacher at Joel P. Jensen Middle School, said having students excited about their coursework accelerates the learning process.

"I think our kids really need to be independent learners in order to gain those skills to be competitive," Whiteside said. "And I think in this program, they get to come together in a community, work with other kids, and they bring so much to it."

Part of the focus of Utah's STEM campaign lies in helping girls discover interest in subjects that predominantly appeal to male students. Among the crowd of mostly boys at Wednesday's robotics competition, Sam Fitton quietly smiled to herself after winning a sumo-style robot match.

The ninth-grader from Oquirrh Hills Middle School said being in a robotics class full of boys doesn't bother her, nor does the prospect of competing with them when she pursues a STEM degree in college. But she said she wishes more girls shared her interests.

"It's sort of an eye-opener that this is what I'll have to deal with when I go to college," Sam said. "It's not intimidating. Boys aren't intimidating unless they know what they're doing. Most of the time, they're just clueless. So they don't really worry me."

Money for STEM

Lawmakers devote millions of dollars each year to boost student interest in STEM fields through programs such as the one in the Jordan School District. This year, the Legislature appropriated almost $30 million to the STEM Action Center, as well as $560,000 for STEM initiatives in southern Utah.

Utah's STEM campaign is perhaps most visible through frequent large-scale STEM fairs, the largest of which brought roughly 14,000 middle-schoolers to Utah Valley University in March to talk with prospective STEM employers about career opportunities that await.

"It's such a growing field that these kids, if they get a leg up on it now, this gets them on their way of getting interest in something that can be a career for them," said Scott Church, a computer technology and business teacher at West Jordan Middle School.

It's unclear how many STEM events are held statewide each year, though many school districts host their own small-scale events. Education and business leaders hope the effort will lead to greater interest among students and a more qualified local workforce years from now.

"I think our kids have a skill set now that they can go out and apply to more advanced learning," said Barbara Gentry, Jordan School District's science and STEM consultant. "The student interest is just off the charts. They're like little sponges for this kind of stuff. I think the sooner we start with kids, the better, and that their interest will build over time."

But funding shortages continue to pose barriers to such programs. Because of the demand among businesses for tech talent, finding qualified STEM teachers who haven't left the classroom for higher wages in other industries is a challenge, Gentry said.

In an effort to entice more STEM professionals to be teachers, the Legislature this year passed HB203, which offers up to $4,100 in supplemental salary for STEM teachers.

Even permanent teachers can sometimes be reluctant to implement STEM programs when it's unclear how long the programs will last, according to Tami Goetz, executive director of the STEM Action Center.

"One of our challenges is a lot of what we're dealing with is just one-time funding," Goetz said. "It's a challenge to get school districts and school administrators, even teachers, to feel good about participating up front because of the risk of committing time and effort when you know it's one-time funding, and at best, you're going to have it for a few years before it goes away."

Currently, only $6 million of the center's funding is ongoing state money, while the center receives $23.5 million in one-time money.

Integrating learning

The STEM Action Center is also hoping to provide more STEM opportunities during normal school hours instead of having to rely on after-school programs. This includes a proposed set of new science standards for middle-schoolers developed by the Utah State Office of Education.

The new standards, which are just over halfway through a public comment period, would add "the specific articulation of engineering as an important application of science and help bring that engineering design into the classroom," according to Sarah Young, STEM liaison between the STEM Action Center and the Utah State Office of Education.

"It really pushes our students to be able to not just have a basic understanding of the science concepts, but taking it a step further and asking them to apply it, to solve a problem and design a solution," Young said.

Goetz said she hopes the new standards will be a starting point to make subjects, such as those covered in the Jordan School District's after-school program, more of a daily experience for all students.

"I see us moving more and more in the direction of how do we integrate it across what's being taught already in the classrooms rather than just adding more or having an after-school program because there's no time during the day," she said.

While bringing STEM into daily coursework becomes a growing priority, Young said it's also important to continue having STEM fairs to connect students with potential employers to guide them in their vocational pursuits.

"I think that both of them have to exist," Young said. "It's one thing to have the opportunity to engage in something, like robotics in our classroom. But if we're generating this passion and interest in the classroom, we've got to be able to show our kids how that translates to career opportunities in the future."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen