Engineering a stronger STEM workforce, right in our own backyard

Engineering a stronger STEM workforce, right in our own backyard

kcez cover photoStudents in our central city all too often lack the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and enrichment opportunities afforded those in more affluent Kansas City metro neighborhoods and schools.

Just ask Ken Burke. Burke is a science teacher at Paseo Academy of Fine & Performing Arts, a signature high school in the Kansas City Public School district. He’s also the coach for Paseo’s FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC) team.

Programs like FIRST Robotics are recognized leaders in improving student engagement, interest in STEM and preparation for success in college. While this afterschool program is expanding throughout our region, Kansas City’s most under-resourced schools struggle to provide the financial and volunteer support—and the physical space necessary to exponentially grow valuable programs like FIRST Robotics.

A new initiative created in partnership with KC STEM Alliance and UMKC School of Computing & Engineering is working to change that with the opening of KC Engineering Zone. “KC EZ” is a direct response to the equity and access issues under-resourced schools face. For Coach Burke and his robotics team, it’s a game changer.

“This is my 10th robot,” Burke said, counting his years of involvement in robots built. He’s clearly proud and encouraged by the students he’s coached over the last ten years. The team has clearly benefited from Coach Burke’s tenure and veteran “8th robot” team mentor, Joe Bindel, staff engineer and group leader at MRI Global.  Bindel’s employer, MRI Global has been the lead sponsor of Paseo Robotics Team #1763 since its inception, providing necessary financial and volunteer support.

But both Burke and Bindel will tell you, it hasn’t been easy. The FIRST Robotics season allows a strict 6-week build season before robots are “bagged and tagged” for competition. For under-resourced schools, limited access to the school building after hours and on weekends—limited access to machine tools—limited space for designing, programming and building the robot or creating a practice field for test runs have all been barriers. Limitations that drastically reduce build time and ultimately render an uneven playing field at competitions.

The goal of KC EZ is to make navigating those barriers a little easier. Created through the generous assistance of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, KC EZ became a reality because of incredible support from its founding partners – US Engineering, NNSA, Honeywell, BNIM, JE Dunn and Mark One Electric. These project partners stepped up to provide in-kind donations of space, equipment, project management and construction, as well as down-the-road corporate commitments of financial and volunteer support.

On Saturday, January 10, Paseo’s Robotics team started their 2015 build season in the new KC EZ space. Lincoln College Preparatory Academy’s Tigerbytes Team #1775 moved in ten days later. After school activity buses provided by the KCPS district bring students to KC EZ, located on UMKC’s campus, immediately after school and pick them up at KC EZ four hours later to deliver them home—adding an extra two hours to their weekday build schedule.

Students report that they like how it feels to spend after school hours and Saturdays on a University campus. It’s not unusual to find UMKC engineering students working with the high school students, showing them that kids just like them are earning engineering degrees.

“We know that when students have experiences on college campuses, surrounded by college students and faculty, they are more likely to pursue post-secondary education,” said Kevin Truman, Dean, UMKC School of Computing and Engineering.

It’s also true that when students are provided the opportunity to work side-by-side with STEM professionals, they’re more likely to explore STEM degrees and careers. Historically, access to professional role models has been another limitation for urban students. KC EZ is committed to reducing that gap by providing a space that offers multiple opportunities and easy access points for mentors. Engineers and other STEM professionals who are eager to help students realize their potential and understand the possibilities that are within their reach.

“The mission of KC EZ goes beyond creating a build space for high school robotics with a state-of-the-industry machine shop,” said Tim Moormeier, President, US Engineering and KC EZ volunteer project manager. “It’s a great start, but it’s just the beginning. KC EZ is structured to grow untapped resources—to open doors for students who are underrepresented on our college campuses and in our STEM workforce.”

In the next few weeks, KC STEM Alliance will be looking at additional utilization opportunities for KC EZ.  Opportunities might include programming and computer science workshops, college dual credit and industry certification courses. Project Lead the Way ® professional development for teachers, summer STEM camps and clubs, regional workshops for area FIRST teams, other science clubs and organizations.

In addition, focus groups will help identify other ways to provide wrap around support for students in STEM education and enrichment. K-12 and post-secondary educators will sit down with business and community leaders to envision KC EZ at its optimum capacity, as a safe and supportive space to create and innovate. Engineering a stronger STEM workforce, right in our own backyard.

Story by Laura Loyacono, Executive Director, KC STEM Alliance

This story originally appeared in the February 20, 2015 issue of the Kansas City Business Journal’s Engineer’s Week supplement.