When it comes to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiatives in Arizona, Grand Canyon University is frequently at the forefront.
So it’s only fitting that GCU’s Strategic Educational Alliances department should become a driving force behind the Chief Science Officers (CSO) program in Arizona’s high schools and middle schools.
If this sounds like Star Trek (Mr. Spock was, after all, chief science officer aboard the Starship Enterprise), it’s because these students advocate for STEM education at their schools, essentially becoming “the voice” of STEM, said Amanda Hughens, GCU’s K-12 STEM outreach manager.
The first year was so successful, Hughens said, that a group of six of the state’s 140 chief science officers — all of whom were elected by classmates — was invited to talk with lawmakers in Washington D.C. last month.
The result: A STEM program that started in Arizona may become a national model.
“The White House Office for Science and Technology heard about CSOs and wanted to learn more,” said Hughens, an educator, professional development specialist and advocate for STEM programs at GCU and K-12. “They see this as a national initiative.”
The White House science and technology office has asked that the initiative spread to all 50 states as early as November, Hughens said. California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and others are boarding the train.
CSOs are gaining in numbers
It’s an initiative that is spreading rapidly, growing from 140 participants in Arizona during 2015-2016 to more than 240 after elections were held this spring for the 2016-2017 year, Hughens said.
CSOs are also helping transform the typical “nerd” and “geek” stereotype of students who excel at science and math.
“These are really some of the cooler kids at school,” said Hughens.
The program was launched in 2015 by the Annual Arizona SciTech Festival Initiative, headed by executive director Dr. Jeremy Babendure. GCU became a program sponsor, supported the Washington D.C. trip and is hosting the CSO Summer Institute 2016 for more than 200 participants, including lawmakers, representatives from several states and White House officials.
CSOs are science ambassadors who coordinate speakers, field trips and projects that will infuse excitement about STEM curriculum. They organize science cafes, family science nights and hands-on displays to entice youngsters about the “magic” of science, Hughens said.
“It’s taking the scientific principles of things like magnetism and making that mystery into something really cool and brilliant,” she said.
CSOs meet with elected officials to advocate for science education and also meet as a “cabinet.” At the same time, a community or business “Jedi” (yes, a Star Wars reference this time) mentors them, Hughens said.
Hughens said the idea is for science program advocacy to come from the ground up and the group most affected: the students themselves.
Warm Washington welcome
The CSOs spoke to area legislators and attracted the attention of U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), who urged them to visit Washington D.C. to spread the word.
Accompanied by several adults, including Hughens —who acquired polo shirts and bags for the group — six of the students departed May 16 for the nation’s capital. GCU sponsored four of them.
There, the CSOs:
- Held a Congressional briefing with lawmakers from half a dozen states.
- Met individually with U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, U.S. reps Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) and personnel from the offices of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon(R-AZ).
- Met with White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and John Holdren, assistant director of the White House Office of Science and Technology and with officials from NASA and the Department of Energy.
- Toured Marine Corps Base Quantico, visited Hogan’s Alley and saw various FBI training facilities.
Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.