A lot has been happening with STEM in Utah since our conversation in 2016. The Utah STEM Action Center, based in Salt Lake City, has created a strategic plan, awarded computing partnership grants and launched a Mobile STEM Museums project — and that’s just a sampling of its accomplishments. In addition, the center will sponsor the Utah STEM Fest on October 23-24 at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy. To find out more about the recent accomplishments at the center and the upcoming STEM Fest, we reached out to center administrators: Tamara Goetz, executive director; Sue Redington, program director; and Katherine Kireiev, communications manager. They collaborated on answers to our questions:

Tamara Goetz

Sue Redington

Katherine Kireiev

Q: STEMx chatted with the Utah STEM Action Center in fall 2016. At that time, center Executive Director Tamara Goetz said she hoped to work on a new strategic plan, grow an endowment and nurture the K-16 Computing Pathway initiative, among other goals. Bring us up to date on those projects and the other work in progress at the Utah STEM Action Center.

A: The STEM Action Center did indeed create a three-year strategic plan, which can be found on the STEM Action Center website, https://stem.utah.gov. The plan is due for an update and extension in the near future.

The endowment, as part of the Utah STEM Foundation, has proven to be a bit more difficult. The STEM Action Center is a state agency, and the ability to create an endowment as a state agency is not likely. Thus, we continue to operate our foundation in the absence of an endowment.

The Computing Partnership Grant Program, supported by funding from Senate Bill 190, provides assistance to public schools and districts throughout Utah, with a focus on building or enhancing sustainable computing programs. The Utah State Legislature approved funding in March 2017, with first-round grants awarded in fall 2017, and second-round grants awarded in spring 2018.

The STEM Action Center has awarded 29 grants in 21 Utah school districts. The schools impacted include 69 elementary, 99 middle and 28 high schools. Fifty-eight percent of schools are located off the Wasatch Front (also considered rural). More than 200 teachers have been identified for professional learning opportunities. Eighteen AP classes, 22 robotics clubs and 30 other after-school clubs have been implemented.

The key impact areas involve work-based learning, K-16 pathways, elementary coding, robotics, after-school clubs, summer camps, apprenticeships/internships, curriculum development, professional learning, industry certifications, increased class offerings and robust industry engagement.

An extension of the Computing Partnership Grant Program is the Utah Computing Apprenticeship Consortium (UCAC), which was recently launched with the help of a state grant. The UCAC is the first legitimate apprenticeship program for Utah’s tech companies and computing talent. The program is modeled after the traditional trades apprenticeship but addresses the key differences that are critical for successful adaptation to the tech world.

New is the Mobile STEM Museums project that is funded by a grant from Intermountain Healthcare. The Mobile STEM Museums project will pilot two mini-museums that have a narrow scope and are designed as “pop ups.” They can be set up at any location and will employ mixed media such as 3-D printing, holography, gaming and augmented reality/virtual reality.

Q: Goetz told us that, since the center opened in July 2013, the state has seen an increase in students’ math and science scores and in their interest in STEM careers. Is that still the case? What other success stories involving the center can you share? What challenges has the center faced and how has it evolved?

A: The K-12 Math Personalized Learning Software Grant provides funds to local education agencies and schools through a competitive grant process to support the use of mathematics software that is individualized, self-adapting and engaging. Programs assess students’ understanding of core standards in math and provide personalized content, adaptively targeting knowledge gaps and providing immediate feedback.

There have been statistically significant positive correlations between product use and student achievement every year since the program’s inception in 2013. The Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah, in partnership with Utah Valley University School of Education, provides third-party evaluation of programs yearly and makes recommendations to the STEM Action Center for the grant program.

In the 2016-17 school year, students who used the software at least 28 minutes a week were 42 percent more likely to meet grade-level proficiency in mathematics than similar non-users, and 68 percent of teachers indicated that access to the math software increased their overall satisfaction with their job.

The STEM Action Center provided software licenses to 207,314 students for the 2018-19 school year, reaching more than 30 percent of all K-12 students in the state.

The Alliance for Science & Technology Research in American released state data for 2018, which are similar to 2017, that illustrate trends in student interest in STEM during the past nine years. The good news is, we see an increase in, or similar level of interest in, STEM by several underrepresented student populations including Asian American and Hispanic/Latino children.

Unfortunately, while we see an increase in STEM with boys in the past five years, the interest in STEM by girls remains unchanged. We see this as an opportunity and have increased our strategic efforts to address the lack of interest in STEM by Utah girls. These efforts include scaling our micro-messaging pilot project with the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (with support from the Motorola Solutions Foundation) to mitigate the damaging effects of negative micro-messaging to girls.

We have also launched our Girls Who Code Clubs network. We had five clubs a mere eight months ago, and now we have 62 clubs, and, with the help of a generous donation from the Carbonite Charitable Fund, we will be hosting the first Shark Tank competition for Girls Who Code Clubs on April 25, 2019.

The Utah STEM Foundation is a unique component of the Utah STEM Action Center. The Utah STEM Foundation became official on May 10, 2017, having received the Letter of Determination from the Internal Revenue Service. The foundation has an advisory board with industry support from Andeavor (formerly Tesoro), Boeing, Carbonite, Comcast, IM Flash, Intermountain Medical Group, LSI, Lockheed Martin, MHTN Architects, Microsoft and US Synthetic.

The foundation has a part-time director who oversees the function and activities of the board, as well as the receipt of all donations from corporate partners. The foundation board continues to develop and expand on many new and existing community partners and donors who are, in turn, increasing their donation each year.

The following generously provided cash donations for fiscal year 2017:

  • Adobe, $50,000
  • Andeavor, $300,000
  • Boeing, $17,500
  • Comcast, $30,000
  • Hill Air Force Base, $250,000
  • IM Flash, $44,207
  • Miller Family Philanthropy, $50,000
  • Rockwell Collins, $2,000

The following generously provided cash donations for fiscal year 2018:

  • Adobe, $12,500
  • Andeavor Foundation, $300,000
  • Barr Engineering, $1,210
  • Boeing, $10,000
  • Carbonite, $25,000
  • CenturyLink, $10,000
  • Comcast, $5,000
  • Fidelity Investments, $5,000
  • Hill Air Force Base, $308,000
  • Larry H. Miller, $50,000
  • Wells Fargo Foundation, $5,000

The following generously provided in-kind contributions for fiscal year 2017:

  • Orbital ATK, more than 500 computers
  • MHTN, pro bono architectural services for the Utah STEM Bus
  • VCBO, architectural mentoring for students at Park City Center for Advanced Professional Studies
  • UTA, two transit buses and a transit van for Utah STEM Action Center programs
  • Brackitz, education kits
  • SumBlox Group, SumBlox kits
  • Midwest Commercial Interiors, furniture and carts for the Utah STEM Bus

The following generously provided in-kind contributions for fiscal year 2018:

  • Vybe Socks, Walmart and Woven Pear, annual sock drive for the homeless population
  • Sphero and Lakeshore Learning, educational kits to be used on the Utah STEM Bus
  • CenturyLink, Chevron Fuel Your School, Clark Planetarium, Curriculum Associates, Deer Valley, doTERRA, FanX, FuzePlay, Hale Centre Theatre, Hogle Zoo, IKOS, IM Flash, Imagine Learning, Minky Couture, Natural History Museum of Utah, Orbit Irrigation Products, Nu Skin, Pluralsight, Red Butte Garden, RubySnap, Scentsy, Svaha Clothing, ST Math, Swire Coca-Cola, Thanksgiving Point, Traeger Grills, Zermatt, all companies donated prizes or food items for teachers at our Best Practices Conference.

It was incredible to see such an immense outpouring of generosity toward educators at the STEM Best Practices Conference, and it was equally incredible to see how excited our teachers were to attend a conference where they were definitely treated as VIPs. The total estimated in-kind value of fiscal 2018 is $65,838.

Donors include:

  • Hill Air Force Base, which has worked closely with the Utah STEM Action Center and Utah STEM Foundation to allocate funding to teachers, schools and other organizations that are providing STEM opportunities.
  • Comcast, which has funded programs and STEM events, as well as created and distributed communication materials to promote awareness for STEM.
  • Andeavor (formerly Tesoro), which played an integral role in the establishment of the Utah STEM Foundation by granting $1.5 million during five years for the Utah STEM Bus program.
  • Carbonite, which has championed an effort to support the Girls Who Code with an Entrepreneurship Challenge program coming in spring 2019.
  • Larry H. Miller, who has played an integral role in bringing STEM to the masses with the Utah STEM Bus program.

Foundation funding highlights include:

  • $2,500, which was generously donated to the AIS Prep Program (American Indian Services) for Native American students’ six-week summer intensive camp. Funding was used to enhance their curriculum.

The following new grants were secured during fiscal year 2017:

  • Hill Air Force Base, $15,000 for computing perception studies, $30,000 for professional training for teachers in code.org activities, and $20,000 for Utah STEM Bus school grants.

As far as challenges go, one of the biggest that the Utah STEM Action Center faces is “scope creep.” This is a serious consideration, given the broad mission that the center has been given by the Utah Legislature.

The statutory mandate for the center spans both education and workforce development. Thus, the programs at the center range from fundamental STEM such as the K-12 Personalized Digital Math Program to the K-12 Professional Learning grant program to a National Science Foundation grant that is working to create a communication and outreach strategy for the state for career and technical education to the latest project, which is the establishment of the first apprenticeship program for computing.

And, we cannot forget the Utah STEM Bus and Mobile Museums.

Q: Your center’s original model for governance placed the center outside the purview of the state education department. Has that proved beneficial?

A: While our governance is independent of the state education department, we work closely with the Utah State Board of Education to support teachers in math and the sciences. We want to be sure that our students are receiving support for success in math and science, and this involves working with teachers to identify areas of need.

Examples of this include facilitating/coordinating professional development events, as well as identifying areas where we can help augment existing curriculum. Having the independence positions us to try different, nontraditional learning approaches without the procedural hurdles that come with direct governance.

Our goal is to complement education in a symbiotic and dynamic way that benefits the education system as a whole, in the interest of preparing students for the many STEM jobs going unfilled in our state. We all want to see our state’s continued economic success.

Q: Tell us about the upcoming Utah STEM Fest: Who is it for, what can they see there and what makes the Utah STEM Fest unique?

A: Utah STEM Fest is a highly visible event that provides opportunities for engagement among children, teens, families and local STEM professionals. This year’s festival will feature more than 100 hands-on activities, live performances, interactive demonstrations and family-oriented STEM entertainment.

STEM-based companies have the opportunity to educate the students about the wonders of STEM and showcase the technological projects involving their organization. It provides a global view of the state of STEM careers in Utah, and the many different pathways — both traditional and nontraditional — that students and their parents can consider in planning for what comes after high school.

Q: Tell us about the exhibitors at the festival and what’s new and different this year. How has the fest grown and changed year to year?

A: Exhibitors include STEM industry companies ranging from such multinational enterprises as Rio Tinto, Adobe and IM Flash, down to smaller local businesses that offer specialty STEM learning kits and hands-on tools, as well as local museums and hands-on learning centers.

Last year we saw close to 30,000 attendees over three days, including the all-ages public night event and two school field-trip days. Field trips were open to fifth- through 10th-graders, and the amount of traffic proved difficult for students to truly immerse themselves in the hands-on experience our event aims to offer.

This year, we’ve scaled back to include a smaller field-trip demographic range —sixth- through 10th-graders — over two days, and have added a special exhibition window for students with special needs to allow them access to the same immersive learning experience apart from the bustle of large crowds.

Q: What lessons have you learned by presenting the STEM Fest, and by advocating for STEM in general via the center?

A: We’ve learned so many things across virtually all aspects of our programs and events, but the most interesting and impactful lesson is that we must broaden our focus beyond the center’s K-12 target demographic.

We no longer consider ourselves as an agency that serves only K-12; we’ve expanded our focus to span “pre-K through gray.” Curiosity has no bounds. The most rewarding aspect of our work is to engage individuals in innovative solutions-focused thought and practices.

To see toddlers learn basic coding by playing with Bee-Bots when we exhibit at public expos while having retirees contact us about ways to get into IT work-from-home vocations are just as rewarding, if not more, as watching the proliferation of STEM after-school clubs and expansion of educators’ skill sets through programs our agency facilitates.

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