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Science: It’s not just for lab geeks anymore

Asked to imagine a future career in science, most kids will probably envision white lab coats and beakers, or line upon line of computer code. But a new program in Washington state seeks to broaden the image of STEM (short for science, technology, engineering and math) careers to include everything from the analysis of local water resources to salmon habitat restoration.

The program, called FieldSTEM, is putting the spotlight on non-traditional STEM education in the “career-connected learning” sector. It’s all thanks to the collaborative efforts of Washington  STEM, a statewide nonprofit that works to advance STEM education, and the Pacific Education Institute, which creates teaching frameworks for outdoor, project-based learning.

In November, the partnership announced 10 grants of $5,000 each for programs that promote student exploration of natural resource management and agricultural and environmental science careers.

“We wanted to select very science-based programs that had great FieldSTEM qualities already, but maybe want to go deeper with serving underrepresented students,” says Gilda Wheeler, senior program officer at Washington STEM.

Among the grant recipients is the North Olympic Salmon Coalition (NOSC), which engages seventh grade students in Clallam County in habitat restoration and the monitoring of wild salmon stocks through a program they call “Real Learning, Real Work.” Students in the program work together to devise engineering solutions to issues revolving around natural habitat restoration.

The program teaches them, for example, all about the most advantageous soil conditions, vegetation and how to measure land plots. The students then design their own habitats and calculate the budgets for their respective projects. Then they get their hands dirty: they plant all the vegetation themselves. At the end of the school year, the program brings them back to their initial sites to evaluate their work.

“We’re able to provide hands-on experience that schools can’t provide,” says Rebecca Benjamin, the salmon coalition’s executive director. “[The students] are designing and implementing habitats that go beyond classroom teaching.

“Salmon are an iconic part of the Pacific Northwest,” Benjamin continues. “They’re deeply rooted in tribal culture and they play a huge role in Washington’s economy.” She adds that these projects involve more than just the students: “There’s no facet of the community that isn’t involved in large-scale projects. It’s powerful,” she says.

“STEM is fairly broad; a big component of science is understanding the natural world and natural systems,” Wheeler explains, adding that many Washington industries depend on natural resource management.

Other grant recipients chosen include Spokane County Water Resources, which engages high school students in analyzing local water resource issues, and West Sound STEM Network, which develops program enhancements for students and educators to explore environment-based problems.

While there are currently no concrete plans to continue working specifically with the FieldSTEM grants in future years, Washington STEM is working on capacity-building for career connected learning through public and private partnerships, which would also include further support for field STEM learning.

“A lot of young people are concerned with protecting the environment,” says Wheeler, with regard to the ever-growing concerns about climate change. And that’s where a career in natural resource management comes into play. She adds that “It’s an attractive, engaging career path for young people who don’t want to sit behind a desk all day. It captures their imagination and interest.”

This series made possible with support from Alaska Airlines. The views and opinions expressed in the media, articles, or comments on this article are those of the authors and do not reflect or represent the views and opinions held by Alaska Airlines.

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