The Dalles is a top-15 finalist nationwide for a grant that could potentially hire two full-time employees to help bring hands-on STEM mentoring and projects to local students. US2020 announced the finalists in its STEM Coalition Challenge in January, and the top eight applicants will share around $1 million in grant awards. The finalists were selected based on their potential for impact, approach to partnership building, creative engagement strategies and sustainability planning, according to US2020. The goal of the challenge is to bring STEM mentorship and hands-on experiences to underrepresented students. The challenge received proposals from 92 communities, representing nearly 2,000 partners.
“In order to ensure an economy and country of diverse thinkers and doers, we need to continue to shine a light on the STEM collaborations that are on the ground,” US2020 said in a press release announcing the finalists. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The grant would enable “students in the gorge to be connected to STEM professionals and to be able to see themselves in that role,” said Christy Christopher, the STEM hub coordinator for the Columbia Gorge Education Service District. She was looking for funding to support more programming and mentorships and learned about the grant and decided to apply. Christopher partnered with The Dalles High School, The Dalles-Wasco County Library and the Columbia Gorge Technology Alliance in the grant application. The grant would also give students a hands-on ability “to tinker and create,” she said. Dylan McManus, assistant director at the library, said it would enable students to see how STEM can benefit their education and career prospects.
The goal is to have fully integrated access to technology from pre-school up, he said. McManus said he was brought on at the library because of “the Maker movement,” which is hands-on, project-based STEM learning. The movement is founded on the idea of a collective learning space, he said. His Maker Space at the library teaches youth how to create computer code through play, for example. They also do things like make their own video games. Christopher said students have been doing hands-on learning “forever” in terms of welding and mechanics, but this puts a modern take on it. Of three applications from STEM hubs in Oregon, including one from Portland, The Dalles was the only one to make it to the finalist level. McManus was one of three local representatives of the group that applied for the grant who travelled to Pittsburgh recently as one of the national finalists. He said The Dalles was one of the youngest groups there in terms of the age of the organization. It was also one of the smallest. McManus said presenters there told the finalists that “If you’re here, your organization and your community has pointed you out as a national leader” in STEM collaboration. “This is awesome that The Dalles is a leader in STEM.” He said reaching the finalist level for a competitive nationwide grant is something the community can be proud of. “It’s important for The Dalles to feel a sense of value,” he said, to reduce rural flight, or the departure of local youth for bigger cities.
He said what stood out about The Dalles was the collaborative nature of the entities working on STEM, that it demonstrated it was thinking on both a small and large scale, and the fact that its grant proposal included long-range planning. The group’s focus is working on pooling collective resources, and that collaboration helped propel the group to the finalist level. The grant is mentor-based, with both one-on-one mentorships and project-based mentoring. The work could be offered in the classroom or at the library, for example. The employees paid by the grant would work for one year. “The idea is to offer mentorships in all fields that are STEM,” said McManus. That would range from electricians to welders to medical careers. McManus would like to bring in people like a world-famous roboticist, and establish residencies staffed by professors who come here in the off-season.
He would also like to bring in industry leaders to work with local leaders, so they can in turn work with kids. “We already have an alliance of technology leaders and they want to work with kids,” McManus said. “And now there’s the energy to start facilitating that.” “There’s a lot of passion for these things to happen and a lot of push from partners to make it happen, and a legislative mandate to make it happen,” he said. But the legislative mandate did not come with the dollars to make it happen. For example, the local STEM hub has just $75,000 for two years for all 10 school districts in its five-county area. The grant program started in 2013, Christopher said, and is done through Citizen Schools, a national non-profit organization.