Techlandia Issue 5- 2021/2022 - Page 21

Oregon is on track to add more than 52,000 STEM-related jobs by 2029, at a time when significant gaps exist between the employment demand and the number of graduating students demonstrating critical skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. Coupled with deep disparities in access to and success in STEM education, the state’s workforce faces real challenges in advancing 21st-century economic drivers.  

To address these challenges, Oregon Community Foundation (OCF) promotes career-connected learning (CCL) and a regional engagement strategy to increase investment in Oregon’s state-designated STEM Hubs. These thirteen regional STEM Hubs identify needs and assets in their communities, connect partners and resources, and strategize to fill gaps in classroom exposure to STEM subjects. They bring together families, K-12 educators, career technical education partners, higher education, community-based organizations, and industry to advance relevant in-school and out-of-school STEM experiences that ignite students’ passions and interests.

The OCF IGNITE Grant is designed to boost community support and private-sector involvement in the Oregon STEM Hubs so they may better serve youth experiencing the opportunity gap.

“OCF’s goal is to strengthen partnerships between business and education to expand and deepen STEM  opportunities for youth from under-resourced rural communities and low-income families, as well as those underrepresented in tech fields, including youth of color and girls,” explained Belle Cantor, Senior Education Program Officer at OCF. “By providing capacity-building grants that include matching funds and technical assistance, the IGNITE program aims to inspire long-term buy-in and investment for STEM education throughout Oregon.”

All but one of the Oregon STEM Hubs are participating in the IGNITE Grant, with project funding now underway in several regions. 

The Columbia Gorge STEM Hub, which serves five counties running east along the Columbia and south to Warm Springs, takes a regional approach to career-connected learning (CCL). Rather than individual high schools driving CCL curriculum, the STEM Hub brings together a team of key players from across school districts in a coordinated approach involving industry partners in CCL and internships.

“By pooling our resources and collaborating, we can better serve students,” said Christy Christopher, Columbia Gorge STEM Hub Executive Director. “It also means we have a better method for recruiting partners. If one school wants to do a career expo, we instead make that a regional career expo so that a company can go to one event and have a bigger impact.”

The Gorge Tech Alliance joined with companies around the region such as Orbital UAV, Sightline Applications, Google, Trillium Engineering, and Cardinal Glass, to advise the Columbia Gorge STEM Hub on how they would like to participate in local CCL. This school year, industry partners will provide guest speakers, worksite tours and job shadows, internships for academic credit, and direct project-based collaboration with classes.

Christopher cites the OCF IGNITE Grant as key to the success of getting more local companies involved, both in the classroom and through financial donations to support the Hub’s work in this area.

“The grant provided our Hub with a way to galvanize companies around career-connected learning in our region,” she said. “OCF matching funds multiplied the impact of each company’s investment.”

Heidi Larwick and her team at Connected Lane County, also a local STEM Hub and IGNITE Grant recipient, took a different approach. After meeting with partners across various industries and sectors, they determined that students were missing an opportunity for hands-on projects or work experience to connect their classroom learnings to experience in the field.

“We started thinking about what it would look like for us to create a physical space where students could come make, create, and invent on their own,” explained Larwick. “A space with high-tech equipment that you might see in a local industry job.”

With OCF funding and financial support from the community, the Connected Lane County team moved quickly to make their vision a reality. A brand-new space called SparkLab opened in downtown Eugene in June 2021.