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Statewide festival seeks to spark student interest in science, tech

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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

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When you’re 10, an opportunity to build a robot today is far more enticing than the promise of a good paying job in science and technology when you’re a grown up. But organizers of the Arizona SciTech Festival and its many high-profile sponsors, including the Arizona Commerce Authority, the Arizona Technology Council Foundation and the Arizona Board of Regents, say they’re working to build a path from one to the other.

The festival, which kicked off earlier this month, will feature nearly 500 events throughout the state in February and March.

Representatives from business and education who participated in the festival’s kickoff event at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix last week say Arizona’s ground for growing interest in science, technology, engineering and math fields is fertile.

Statewide festival seeks to spark student interest in science, tech AZSciTech2014RoboticsHP1

Students answer questions about a robot they built at the Arizona SciTech Festival kickoff event at the Arizona Science Center in February 2014. Photo courtesy Arizona SciTech Festival

“Arizona is a science, technology, engineering and math leader,” said Geoff Notkin, of Cox Media’s STEM Journals, a locally produced cable show that explores topics and careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. “The cutting edge work being done in our home state of Arizona is amazing.”

That work will be on display as Arizona businesses, school districts, college and universities, community organizations and cities host events that highlight state and local science, technology and engineering industries, and show their importance to Arizona’s past, present and future as part of the Arizona SciTech Festival. The goal: To encourage children to consider careers in science and technology fields.

Jeanine Jerkovic, economic development administrator for the City of Glendale, said she is a believer in the strategy. Three years ago, businesses in Maricopa County’s West Valley hosted about a dozen SciTech Festival events. This year there will be 80, with combined attendance expected to be 10,000. “As businesses are, we’re concerned with building a workforce pipeline, and this is an inspirational way we can do that,” said Jerkovic.

At a time when companies can go anywhere, the SciTech festival has been an effective tool to retain and attract businesses, she added.

This year, Glendale’s Passport to Science will partner with HEROES for Students to bring guest speakers to K-12 classrooms to expose students to more careers and show real-world applications of what they’re learning. Other events include the West Valley STEAMPunk GeoTour, a geocache quest, that begins March 1.

Higher education has joined in the festival as well. The University of Arizona and Arizona State University are among this year’s sponsors.

“Arizona has amazing opportunity,” said Dr. Jim Middleton, professor of engineering education at Arizona State University. “We have a thriving agricultural community, amazing resources, renewable energy sectors that are growing every day. We have the strongest technology sector in years, a burgeoning health and wellness sector, and a strong aerospace and defense industry. We have higher education research and development that is nearly becoming unparalleled.”

As communities celebrate their STEM assets to engage children’s interest in these career opportunities, Middleton said he believes colleges should also provide access to activities, experiences, internships and “higher education opportunities so these interests they’re developing can be nurtured.”

“Development of interest hinges on curiosity, fantasy and challenge,” Middleton said. “Working with the new Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, we’re moving in that direction, but we’re having some difficulties with the fantasy – ‘I wonder’ –  and the curiosity – ‘I wonder what would happen if.’”

Arizona SciTech Festival events seek to provide that, according to Jeremy Babendure, executive director of the Arizona SciTech Festival, which he introduced three years ago with just several dozen events.

This year, community members can learn about police and fire forensic investigations during the Verde Valley SciTech Festival in March, and about the Science of Aviation at West-MEC in Glendale on March 22. Tucson will host Science City on March 15 and 16, and Payson will hold the Gila County STEMFest on May 3.

“Think about changing your life in a small way, help a kid look through a telescope, at a dinosaur skeleton, or go out on a nature hike,” Notkin said. “Those moments can change a kid’s life and make them go, ‘I want to be a biologist, an astronomer, or an aerospace engineer.’”

Businesses in Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Camp Verde and Clear Creek, Yavapai College, all schools, and many community groups are involved in the Verde Valley SciTech festival that runs March 22 through 29, said Cottonwood Mayor Diane Joens.

“Cottonwood is a community that loves its children, but the SciTech festival is not just for kids,” Joens said. “We need our adults, families and seniors all encouraging our children. It is about jobs in the future and security for the American nation.”

Verde River groups and Dead Horse Ranch State Park will feature outdoor science events. Many of the region’s wine businesses will take part in the festival and highlight the science of growing grapes and making wine. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University will host an avionics and robotics event.

“Rural Arizona is excited to be a part of science, technology, engineering and math,” Joens said. “Our kids deserve to be a part of these things, and we’ll do all we can to support that.”

Rebecca Gau, director of the Governor’s Office of Education Innovation, says the Arizona SciTech Festival dovetails with the goals the state has set for public education.

“STEM is a key element of Arizona Ready, the Governor’s education reform plan,” said Gau, who has eaten sun-grilled chicken from a solar oven in Globe, heard kids in Paradise Valley Skype with a man from Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and watched students walk across pallets of raw eggs to learn the distributive properties of force at Lone Mountain Elementary School in Cave Creek.

“How neat to explore the scientific process – sometimes you fail, sometimes the egg breaks, but you figure out why and you try again,” Gau said.

Chevy Humphrey, president and CEO of Arizona Science Center, a ferstival sponsor, says through the festival, businesses, industry, community groups, teachers and families are “creating an infrastructure to support our school kids.”

“We’ve got to get our school kids prepared for the jobs we know about and the ones we don’t even know about,” Humphrey said. “It’s all creating that interest, and you’ve got to create that interest early.

“We are ensuring interest and innovation in science, technology engineering and math for the whole world to see,” said Dr.  Sharon Kortman, vice president of learning for Arizona Science Center. “We are going to be force to be reckoned with in STEM.”