It’s heartening to see school districts, state lawmakers and nonprofits like Washington STEM show strong support for improving education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As others have noted, Washington has the highest concentration of STEM jobs in the country, and yet the majority of our students aren’t graduating with competency in STEM skills.
What’s been overlooked in the debate is Washington’s leading role as a provider of jobs not in a high-tech office or laboratory but outdoors — in the forest, on the waters of Puget Sound or on the farms of Eastern Washington. Natural resource industries — like farming, forestry, fishing and shellfish growing — have been an integral part of our state’s economy since before it was founded 126 years ago.
These natural resource jobs need STEM skills, as much as a software developer or electrical engineer does. The difference is that a budding forester or future division manager at a shellfish company is not going to learn all their critical skills inside a classroom — they need to be in the outdoors.
This is where the Pacific Education Institute comes in. The Olympia-based nonprofit teaches children across the state, from kindergarten to 12th grade, about science in real-world, outdoor settings. In the group’s primary curriculum, called FieldSTEM, students observe, report and learn how every part of an ecosystem interacts with each other, with an emphasis on critical thinking and field analysis.
The Pacific Education Institute, with the help of public and private funding, currently works with more than 100 school districts in Washington state and has plans to serve all of the state’s 295 districts by 2025. The group’s outdoor education saves money for the districts because instead of paying for indoor labs, they let nature become the learning environment.
Then just recently, outdoor education in Washington received a major boost. The Pacific Education Institute and Washington STEM awarded 10 $5,000 grants, according to Crosscut, “for programs that promote student exploration of natural resource management and agricultural and environmental science careers.”
“We wanted to select very science-based programs that had great FieldSTEM qualities already, but maybe want to go deeper with serving underrepresented students,” says Gilda Wheeler, senior program officer at Washington STEM.
Among the grant recipients is the North Olympic Salmon Coalition (NOSC), which engages seventh grade students in Clallam County in habitat restoration and the monitoring of wild salmon stocks through a program they call “Real Learning, Real Work.” Students in the program work together to devise engineering solutions to issues revolving around natural habitat restoration.
The program teaches them, for example, all about the most advantageous soil conditions, vegetation and how to measure land plots. The students then design their own habitats and calculate the budgets for their respective projects. Then they get their hands dirty: they plant all the vegetation themselves. At the end of the school year, the program brings them back to their initial sites to evaluate their work.
“We’re able to provide hands-on experience that schools can’t provide,” says Rebecca Benjamin, the salmon coalition’s executive director. “[The students] are designing and implementing habitats that go beyond classroom teaching.
“Salmon are an iconic part of the Pacific Northwest,” Benjamin continues. “They’re deeply rooted in tribal culture and they play a huge role in Washington’s economy.” She adds that these projects involve more than just the students: “There’s no facet of the community that isn’t involved in large-scale projects. It’s powerful,” she says.
The programs receiving the grants are from all over the state. Go here to see the full list.