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Energy Companies Are Big Backers Of STEM Education

Aaron Schrank

There’s a nationwide push to get more students involved in STEM education. That’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. But, despite enthusiasm—and Wyoming’s above average school funding— few K-12 schools in the state have been able to build the STEM programs they’d like. Many of those that have—have done so not with funding and support from the state—but from the energy industry. Wyoming Public Radio’s Aaron Schrank reports.

At Pinedale Elementary school, students are busy building small cars out of what look like high-tech Lego pieces. Fourth grader Andy Jones swipes through instructions on an iPad to make sure his car is just right.

“We’re going to put an egg on it, then we’re going to roll it down a ramp,” says Jones. “It’s probably going to crack. So, then we can make adjustments to it to try to make it so it doesn’t crack.”

This activity—and these materials—are all part of a STEM curriculum called ‘Project Lead The Way’ launched here in Sublette County School District One last year. Teacher Liz David says it’s more hands-on than most of what she’s seen in her decades in the classroom. 

“It’s giving the kids an opportunity to really expand—and do what an engineer does—propose something new,” says David.

Through this program, 7th graders here are learning 3-D modeling software in computer-aided manufacturing class. And high-schoolers can take a class called ‘Principles of Engineering.’

“If you ever think about going into engineering, it’d be nice to take this class, so that you can either decide if it’s for you or not,” says Bru’NTribbit, a Pinedale High School junior.

It's giving the kids an opportunity to really expand - and do what an engineer does - propose something new.

Most of his classmates are building truss bridges out of balsa wood, but he’s opted to build the machine that will calculate the forces applied to those bridges. He rolls out a heavy-duty toolbox filled with robotics parts.

“It’s like a kit that they send that’s part of the program,” says Tribbit. “There’s a whole bunch of different pieces of metal, and gear and chains.”

Very few Wyoming school districts have programs so focused on engineering. And Superintendent Jay Harnack says Project Lead The Way is known as the very best when it comes to engineering classes.

“They don’t call it the gold standard for nothing,” says Harnack. “It’s expensive.”

Harnack says it’s way too expensive for his district to afford with state funds, and that’s why he turned to the private sector. QEP Resources, a major player in Sublette County’s natural gas industry, put up all of the money for the program in third grade through high school.

"QEP has offered a tremendous amount of money for a district our size,” says Harnack. “The funding last year was $200,000.”

Harnack says he’s grateful for the funding, but a little uneasy about its source. State leaders spout rhetoric about the importance of STEM, but they haven’t put their money where their mouth is.

“I get a message from the Governor that says, ‘I want a particular kind of graduate,’” Harnack says. “We get a similar message from the Legislature that says—we want a certain kind of graduate—with these skills. You can’t have that expectation and a model that doesn’t align with that expectation.”

But Big Energy’s labor needs do align with these expectations. ShandaVangas is QEP’sCoporate Contributions Advisor.

“We know if we want to stay and thrive and grow as an industry, we need to be investing in our future workforce,” says Vangas. “We can’t just sit around and wait for other people to figure out how we improve schools. We need to be a partner and help to make that happen.”

QEP hopped on the STEM bandwagon last year—awarding $1.2 million for Project Lead The Way programs in six states. It’s not alone. Energy giant Chevron will donate $30 million to STEM education this year. And QEP’s Vangas says she expects the trend to continue.

“What we really hope is that by making these big investments—that this will help leverage other funding for the districts—and sort of raise the profile of why it’s important for industry to be involved—and what we can do,” Vangas says.

Wyoming educators say there’s a lot that can be done. Only about 5 percent of Wyoming students graduate high school having passed an AP STEM exam. That’s compared to 16 percent in Massachusetts, and puts Wyoming in 39th place of all states. But, with some help from industry, STEM is catching on here. This year, Kathy Stanton became the first-ever STEM teacher at Monroe Intermediate School in Green River.

She got some STEM training and a set of classroom iPads thanks to a several-thousand-dollar donation from ExxonMobil. The kids use the iPads to play STEM games. But Stanton says, without other steady funding, she has to get creative when it comes to hands-on learning.

“I give the kids two or three materials—quite literally, some index cards and some tape—and I say, ‘build a car that will work,’” says Stanton. “And there’s a lot of struggle with that—which is awesome to see.”

Stanton says she’d like to see her school’s STEM program expand, and she’ll look to companies like Exxon to play a role.

“The cost of material that I’ve learned about just doing this with 400 kids is incredible, and there’s no way we could do it without industry being involved,” says Stanton.

Energy industry support for STEM is on the rise, but for school districts now depending on this funding, sustainability is a concern. Thanks to the oil and gas downturn, QEP says it’s making some small cuts to the Pinedale program next school year. They’re a private company, and have to look out for their bottom line. Whether Wyoming STEM students will be a part of that well into the future remains to be seen. 

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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