Angela Hemingway, director of the Idaho STEM Action Center, could hardly suppress a laugh when she recounted the story of getting her job offer directly from Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter in 2015.
"The legislation that created the center is four pieces of paper, and [the governor] slid it across the table and was like, 'Can you start this new agency for me?' and I said, 'I don't know, let's find out!"' she said.
Hemingway didn't come to the post empty-handed. Before the creation of the center, she spent 14 years teaching biology, microbiology, chemistry, statistics and more to high school and college students. She also assisted the Idaho State Department of Education in setting science and testing standards, but it was in the classroom that she realized there were lacuna in her knowledge that could be filled by an outside agency just like the one she now heads.
When her students at Kuna High School wanted to build a robot for a school project, Hemingway brought in engineers from Micron, Hewlett Packard and Idaho Power to help fill in gaps in her expertise. That experience was part of the inspiration behind the STEM Action Center's mentorship portal, an online initiative that pairs STEM mentors and teachers with students across the state, particularly in rural areas, for work on specific STEM projects. The initiative recently scored a $50,000 grant in the US2020 STEM Coalition Challenge, and on the day the grant was announced, Hemingway sat down with Boise Weekly to talk about the center's next steps.
For those who aren't familiar with your work, what is the mission and goal of the STEM Action Center?
Primarily the mission is that we're going to engineer creative opportunities that connect education and workforce ... We've got a lot of jobs that are going unfilled and it's the goal of the center to ensure that we have a homegrown workforce to fill those jobs.
You're also looking at making Idaho competitive nationally, is that right?
Absolutely. We've got to not only draw in potential employers and potential workforce—which we're doing well, we're number one in the nation for population growth—but also then grow our own, [helping them] recognize that opportunities that maybe they believed only existed in Seattle or San Francisco actually exist right in their own backyard.
How would you describe the STEM Action Center Mentorship Portal?
It's kind of like this matchmaking system that allows the mentor and student to connect ... It really is a chance for the mentor to be in the comfort of their own office and [for example] engage with a student from Challis while the engineer is sitting right here in Micron.
Now that you've won a $50,000 grant, how do you plan to expand the program?
The piece that I see us enhancing with the platform is, once those connections are ready to turn into in-person [interactions]—like, 'I want to make a visit,' or 'How about your school comes out to see where I work,' 'How about an internship or a job shadow,' something that becomes more tangible—we want to build the system so that we can encourage and capture those relationships as they grow and emerge. I see online as just the first step to creating that connection.
Last time I heard you speak, you focused on the difficulties of getting women into STEM and how they in particular need strong mentors. How will this portal benefit them?
There are a number of different studies that show that students, male or female ... if they don't know an engineer, a computer scientist, a chemist, you name it, the chances of them pursuing that as a career are very low.
You've just pulled out some slides of data from your folder—what do those show?
[In this study] young girls are asked, "Do you know what an engineer does? Do they get to be creative? Do they do good things for the world?" And just by meeting an engineer, it shifts their beliefs up very significantly. We need to continue with that exposure so that engineers, computer scientists, have the opportunity to actually talk with these young women and young boys so that they can continue to encourage them.
Apart from the portal, your programming also prioritizes reaching kids when they're young. How young do you aim for exactly?
We just held a professional development focusing on 3- to 6-year-olds. So we did some training with kindergarten and pre-k providers and were able to get them some hands-on STEM tools and training. We do believe it starts kind of "cradle through career." ... Right now we're doing a lot of pilot projects, experimenting, seeing where we're going to have the greatest impact. Because as you recognize, working with a five year old, industry's not going to see that child for 15, 20 years.
What can you do with children that age to promote STEM?
Well there are many tools that are out there that students that particular age can work with. ... [For example] there's something called the Code-a-pillar, where students can actually put together little pieces and one will make it turn left, one will make it turn right, one will make it do a circle, one will make it play a song.
And what would you say to parents who worry that emphasizing STEM that early might contribute to the loss of liberal arts programming in schools?
I think one thing employers are telling us is it's fine if people come out of the pipeline with strong technical skills, but that's not enough—they need to be critical and creative thinkers, they need to be problem solvers, they need to be able to work on teams and solve these challenges through collaboration. So the liberal arts, especially English with its slant on writing/speaking/communicating, are critically important ... One of our number-one coders in the state right now is a music teacher out of Jerome, she oversees our Botball program and she said to me, 'I thought coding was going to be hard, but it's just like musical notes.' She was able to see through her love and knowledge of music that music is just a code creating sound.