Juneau Economic Development Council Executive Director Brian Holst and other officials involved in robotics education in Alaska gave a presentation Tuesday morning to the Senate Education Committee extolling the benefits of the Alaska FIRST organization.
Holst, whose nonprofit group is the “operational partner” for Alaska FIRST through its statewide Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program — more commonly known as STEM AK — was the first to address the four senators assembled in the Beltz Committee Room. He emphasized the value of STEM concepts in education and professional development.
“Strong K-12 education is very important, and I know you’re very concerned with that,” Holst told the senators. “And the needs are very diverse. Amongst our needs, more training opportunities to support K-12 STEM is a strategic investment. Knowing that resources to support education are limited, we encourage you to invest more deeply in STEM education, as these fields are critical to our national competitiveness, the underpinnings of an advanced society and our security, as well as the competitiveness of Alaskan firms.”
Alaska FIRST, Alaska’s state affiliate of the national FIRST organization, offers several science- and engineering-themed after-school programs. They include the FIRST LEGO League and Junior FIRST LEGO League, competitions in which teams of elementary and middle school students build robots out of plastic LEGO blocks and components, and the FIRST Robotics Challenge for high school students.
“We sound like a cute little robotics program, but we’re actually making some really big movement,” said Debra Mumm-Hill, Pacific Northwest director for FIRST.
Holst and Mumm-Hill said Alaska has the highest per capita number of participants among K-12 students in robotics programs out of all 50 states. Forty-five percent of those participants are girls, according to STEM AK coordinator Mary Hakala, far outstripping the national average of around 30 percent, she said.
Mumm-Hill pointed to statistics showing the United States has slid among developed nations in science and math proficiency, as well as to the fact that many of the engineers active during the “Space Race” of the 1950s and 1960s are now retiring from the workforce, leaving a void to be filled.
While many technology jobs have been outsourced to China or India, Mumm-Hill noted that at least one major employer in her region does not have that capability for many of its positions. Chicago-based Boeing, which was founded in Seattle and remains the largest employer in the state of Washington, has many contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense that require work to be done by U.S. citizens.
Mumm-Hill said the key to building a STEM-educated workforce is getting students interested in science and engineering disciplines from a young age.
“We feel we have to engage really early on,” said Mumm-Hill. “This isn’t something that we just have to try to attack in middle school and high school, but elementary school.”
Hakala said some STEM AK robotics projects have practical applications, such as the SeaPerch Remote Controlled Vehicle, or ROV, which has a waterproof camera for use underwater.
“In terms of our coastal communities, that has a lot of neat applications,” Hakala said.
Alaska FIRST concepts are being integrated into high school classroom curricula in some schools around the state, including in Anchorage, according to Program Manager Rebecca Parks.
“It’s very, very impressive to see how these kids deal with this equipment and how they understand it,” said the chairman of the committee, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said after the meeting was adjourned that he wants to steer students toward science and engineering occupations. He referred to statistics presented by Mumm-Hill in her remarks.
“The science and technology presentation and issue that we’re dealing with, I think we need to get that message to the students in junior high, so they deviate more towards math and science and engineering and less toward other areas, like mentioned earlier, where there is not a lot of job opportunities,” said Stedman. “Because we do have the brain drain of a retiring generation.”
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