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State agency announces $6M grant program for STEM education

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 7:43 p.m. MDT

Gavin Thompson and Morten Waite maneuver their Vex robots at the Granite Technical Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Gavin Thompson and Morten Waite maneuver their Vex robots at the Granite Technical Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah schools from Logan to St. George will soon receive help in offering programming in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM.

Officials with the Utah Department of Workforce Services on Wednesday announced the creation of a $6 million STEMLink grant program to be awarded to schools for in-school and after-school STEM classes.

"Many of our schools are anxious to implement STEM programs and activities like this," said Mary Shumway, director of career and technical education for the Utah State Office of Education. "It’s not cheap to get the resources to get some of these programs up and running."

The grants are funded by the Department of Workforce Services through a combination of job growth and Temporary Aid to Needy Families, funds. They will be available to elementary and secondary schools through an application process, DWS executive director Jon Pierpont said.

Morten Waite maneuvers his Vex robot at the Granite Technical Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Morten Waite maneuvers his Vex robot at the Granite Technical Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

"We’re open to what the needs are to the school districts across the state," Pierpont said. "They’re going to know better than we are what they need in their schools."

Pierpont said the grants will focus on underserved populations with the goal of equipping people with employable skills and lifting families out of a cycle of poverty.

There is a growing need for workers with science and technology skills, he said, and school-based experiences will help students consider STEM careers.

"As we looked at STEM-related occupations and industries, typically the unemployment rate for people who had these types of skills and this type of education was lower, the job growth is a bit higher and it also pays higher wages," Pierpont said.

Students who built and programmed Vex robots demonstrate their skills at the Granite Technical Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Students who built and programmed Vex robots demonstrate their skills at the Granite Technical Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Shumway said the number of schools receiving grants will depend on how much money is sought in individual requests. But she anticipated that at least one school in each of Utah's 41 school districts would benefit from the program.

"We’re trying to build programs like this statewide that will meet the needs of business and industry," she said.

For the past several years, STEM education has been a focus of Utah's education, government and business leaders. During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers appropriated $20 million for the STEM Action Center, which coordinates programming and educator training throughout the state. And Utah's business community recently launched a media campaign promoting STEM education.

Jeffrey Nelson, president of Nelson Laboratories and chairman of the STEM Action Center board, said many students don't consider a career in science or engineering until they're able to see the practical application of that knowledge.

Jon Pierpont, executive director of the Department of Workforce Services, is interviewed at the Granite Technical Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Jon Pierpont, executive director of the Department of Workforce Services, is interviewed at the Granite Technical Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

"Kids, a lot of times these days, underestimate what they’re capable of," Nelson said. "I really believe that anybody can be successful."

STEMLink grants will help more students get involved with science, technology, engineering and math, he said, and eventually qualify them for careers in the burgeoning technology sector.

"If you can take what is a great strength of our state, this strong student population, and if we can help just some of them get into these types of fields, I think it helps the kids, I think it helps the economy, and I think it helps the companies," Nelson said.

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