Columbia city council set to devote thousands to STEM education

Posted on 4 March 2018 at 7:34pm

COLUMBIA - Students at Columbia Public Schools may start to see more learning opportunities at their schools if the city council approves a resolution Monday night. 

The council will vote on whether to put $35,000 towards the Columbia STEM Alliance in order to support fields in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The money would help the alliance expand its programs. 

Barry Dalton, community relations specialist for the Public Works Department, said the department recognized a need to support education in STEM-related subjects at local schools. 

“We feel like investing in young people, particularly in the areas of engineering, and of course science, math and technology — which are often underserved — will pay dividends in the long run not just for public works, which depends upon engineering and technology, but the city and community as a whole,” he said.  

Last September, President Donald Trump signed a presidential memorandum directing the Education Department to invest at least $200 million each year to promote STEM education nationwide.  

Trump said in the memo, “Today, too many of our Nation’s K-12 and post-secondary students lack access to high-quality STEM education, and thus are at risk of being shut out from some of the most attractive job options in the growing United States economy.”

Bill Moore is the president of the Columbia STEM Alliance. He said the alliance is volunteer-driven and has relied solely on private donations. He said the city’s grant would allow the volunteers to develop activities like field trips, coding summer camps, robotics tournaments and other in-class and extracurricular activities.

Moore said the alliance has also been working to get microcomputers into the hands of about 1,800 middle schoolers to teach them about coding and programming. He said after completing a set of coursework provided by a UK-based program, the kids would receive a “micro:bit” — a piece of hardware product they could take home to start their own hands-on projects.

As a retired 3M executive with a background in engineering, Moore said the future looks bright for people pursuing STEM careers.

“They are usually well-paying jobs. There are exciting industries that are growing. So the opportunity is there, and the gap is there,” he said.

According to New American Economy, STEM fields before the year 2024 would be “adding almost 800,000 new jobs and growing 37 percent faster than the U.S. economy as a whole.” 

Kate McKenzie is an industrial technology teacher at Jefferson Middle School. She also co-coaches the Fantastic LEGO Ladies, an all-girl competitive robotics team, for fourth through eighth graders. 

McKenzie said the alliance is a group of community and business leaders in Columbia that have helped her team grow. She said the alliance volunteers have “a big-picture view” of the STEM industry across the city.

“They are looking at STEM integration from all different perspectives—not just educational robotics, but also in terms of what jobs are gonna be available when these kids graduate, what skills do they need when they graduate,” she said.

McKenzie said it would be “a good thing” for the alliance to manage the grant, as its programs could help prepare kids for the local job market.

“Sixty percent of high school graduates in Columbia stay in Columbia, and they need to have good jobs,” she said. “There are companies here who need good employees.”

Kevin Gillis is a bioengineering professor at MU. He also mentors a high school-level robotics team, the Army Ants. He said although the $35,000 grant is not enormous, it’s an important step the city is taking.

“Because it really is a sign, a symbol of the commitment of the City of Columbia to STEM education that will hopefully promote local industry and private donors to also kick in,” Gillis said.