It's STEM for the win in Sonora

By Alex MacLean, The Union Democrat

A trio of engineers on Wednesday showed a class of fifth-graders at Curtis Creek Elementary School how a simple lever system made out of a ruler and pencil can allow a single penny to lift a stack of change, erasers and a pencil box.

“It seemed impossible” said Gage Burton, 10, of Sonora.

“Nothing’s impossible in science,” replied Madelyn Rubin, a civil engineer for Black and Veatch, one of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s partner firms that’s working in the area on the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System.

The point of Wednesday’s exercises, which also included experiments demonstrating kinetic energy and wind power, were to show students the real-life applications of science, technology, engineering and math, referred to collectively in education as STEM.

Rubin was one of about a dozen volunteer engineers and scientists to visit seven Tuolumne County schools this week as part of the Teaching Opportunities for Partners in STEM program.

Coordinated by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in partnership with the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office, the program aims to enhance the students’ understanding of the various subjects in hopes of encouraging them to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.

Funding for the program comes through a three-year state grant that provides $500,000 a year to help kindergarten through sixth-grade teachers in Tuolumne, Calaveras and Amador counties get up to speed with new standards in math and science education.

Kush Chohan, a project engineer for McMillen Jacobs Associates, which is working on Hetch Hetchy’s $13 million Mountain Tunnel project, also participated in Wednesday’s exercises. He said the utilities commission requires contractors to give back 1 percent of the contract amount to the community, and that money can go further in rural areas than urban ones.

Chohan said an emphasis on STEM education is important to prepare students for entering today’s advanced workforce.

“The logic of figuring out a problem applies to everything else,” Chohan said. “It’s a mandated foundation for the workforce out there.”

Glen White, a geology instructor at Columbia College who is overseeing the programs funded by the grant, said the new standards stress a more hands-on approach to teaching the subjects.

“The old way would have been where a teacher explains a process, while experiments were more like following a recipe,” White said. “Now, the students get to try different things and see the outcomes on their own.”

With fewer American students pursuing careers in STEM fields than in the past, there has been a nationwide push in recent years to increase proficiency in such disciplines.

According to White, there are many “hidden” opportunities in the county for well-paying jobs that require an education in STEM disciplines, such as health care, tech manufacturing and infrastructure engineering.

White said some companies and agencies that operate in the area are also looking at a large percentage of their engineers reaching retirement age over the next decade, which is one reason they participate in programs like the one Wednesday at Curtis Creek Elementary.

“When city folks come to rural areas, it can be kind of a culture shock,” White said. “If you can recruit kids who grew up in the area to continue their education and come back to work here, that’s a big bonus.”

Tricia Dunlap, a third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade science teacher at Curtis Creek, is one of the 45 teachers involved in the program designed to help guide teachers through the new standards in math and science.

Dunlap said the program has been professionally challenging and allowed her to grow immensely as an educator. Though she has always considered herself a “hands-on” science teacher, she believes the new standards will take that to the next level.

“I focus more on what I want the students to wonder about, rather than just learning isolated facts,” Dunlap said. “My lessons are geared much more toward being a scientist or engineer and having kids discover the answers and solve problems, rather than me telling them the answers.”

Dunlap said she’s seen the growth in her students as well.

“Students are becoming better thinkers and problems solvers,” Dunlap said. “Each year, they get better and better at asking questions and finding solutions.”

With the final year of the grant wrapping up in April, White said he hopes to find other funding sources to help continue the progress that’s been made. He said rural areas like Tuolumne County typically don’t receive as much attention as places like Silicon Valley, where many tech companies are located.

Companies involved in the local program are looking to donate funds to the Sonora Area Foundation for future STEM-related educational activities, according to White. He noted that other programs like HealthLitNow are trying to guide more local students into careers in health care, which is in high demand because of the area’s aging population.

The county Superintendents of Schools Office is hosting a STEM Expo on March 22 at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds to highlight student projects. Activities will run from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., with an awards ceremony at 7 p.m.

Employers are also scheduled to be there to provide information on high-tech jobs available in the area.

The Union Democrat
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