Brad Smith eyed the crowd, stretched his arms out, opened his hands and smiled.
He acknowledged the members of the Washington STEM board in front of him and likened them to an army, fighting on the front lines to bring science, technology, engineering and math education to the forefront for all students.
“We have an opportunity, I believe, to become the first state in the country that gets computer science into every high school,” said Smith, Microsoft’s executive vice president and general counsel, Legal and Corporate Affairs. “(We need to) create the right kinds of incentives and provide training for teachers and let the word spread about the opportunities that this will create.”
Smith, Gov. Jay Inslee and 2013 National Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau from Zillah High School were a handful of keynote speakers at Washington STEM’s second annual STEM Summit on Monday on Microsoft’s Redmond campus. More than 300 participants, which included educators, students, businesses and community leaders, attended the summit.
Washington STEM — a nonprofit launched in March 2011 — advocated successfully for improvement in STEM education in 2013. The Legislature passed, and Inslee signed into law, the comprehensive STEM education initiative, which includes creation of a STEM Education Innovation Alliance and a STEM Benchmark Report Card.
Inslee, who sat in on a question-and-answer session with McKinstry CEO Dean Allen, said his Christmas wish list includes companies providing mentoring and internships so that students will get excited about STEM-related fields.
The governor feels that one of “our greatest hidden challenges” is getting students to recognize why STEM is important in their lives. To achieve this, there needs to be stellar instruction and curriculum and access to things like DNA sequencing machines, which Seattle’s Cleveland High School students are working on thanks to a federal grant, Inslee said.
“I want to thank you for what you’re doing. It’s made a big impact. I think we’re moving the needle on this thing,” the governor told the crowd. “I would ask all of you (business leaders) to look for ways to try to get your experience to share with a student somewhere, because it’s going to do great things to get them to follow you.”
But there’s more work to be done, Inslee added, including lowering the state high school dropout rate and helping high school graduates financially to reach into the college realm to achieve their STEM dreams.
HIGH SCHOOL SUCCESS
Ifrah Mohamed Abshir, Rainier Beach High School sophomore and keynote speaker on Monday, said that taking a computer science class furthered her interest in the medical field. She’s dreamt of being a doctor since childhood and she’s taking large steps toward that goal.
“I want to become a doctor that uses technology and medicine,” she said following the keynote speeches. “You can create apps that can help you find a person’s tumors, you can create programs that help you get the medical history of a person within one touch.”
Charbonneau said he teaches “the hard classes” — chemistry, physics and engineering — at Zillah, but what he really strives to teach is confidence.
“I started asking students what they wanted to learn about,” he said about what areas of those three classes were on the students’ minds.
The Zillah students wanted to learn about robotics, so Charbonneau got some kits and they started investigating that area of engineering. Later, the teacher and some parents raised more than $25,000, bought 100 kits and offered them for free to any school in Washington that was up for delving into robotics.
“If you’re a kid, you should have access to STEM-related materials no matter where you are,” said Charbonneau, whose sixth annual Zillah Robot Challenge competition will take place this Saturday with more than 300 students from 43 high schools.
“People say, ‘Oh OK, so you’re the robot teacher? You know how to teach (robotics)?'” he added. “I don’t have a clue. I don’t know how to program these things. Who the experts are are the students, and that’s the way it should be.”
Smith said that Microsoft would be an ideal place for those STEM students to make their mark in their careers.
“This place is, frankly, all about science, technology, engineering and math. I can tell you, you can’t be a lawyer here without really learning a lot about science, technology, engineering and math, so it runs throughout the DNA of every part of this company,” he said.
Added Abshir: “Knowing that the governor and someone like Brad Smith think the same way I do and understand that children truly are the future, it gives me the extra motivation — I’m not alone.”
• Also at the summit, Washington STEM CEO Patrick D’Amelio announced the expansion of the organization’s growing system of regional STEM Networks, which bring educators, community leaders and STEM professionals together to help improve STEM learning and opportunities for students in their regions, especially students from low-income backgrounds and communities of color. The STEM networks are also aligned with local economic development efforts.