Grant allows Arizona Science Center to boost STEM education in schools

(Evie Carpenter/DD)
The Arizona Science Center will soon be collaborating with schools in Scottsdale, Flagstaff and San Tan Valley to improve STEM education thanks to a grant from the Helios Education Foundation. (Evie Carpenter/DD)

A recent grant from the Helios Education Foundation will allow the Arizona Science Center to reach out to three different school districts in the state to innovate the way science, technology, engineering and math are taught in classrooms.

The grant totals $260,000 and is allocated to planning for the future. The Science Center will contact superintendents, principals and teachers in the Scottsdale and Flagstaff Unified school districts as well as the J.O. Combs Unified School District of San Tan Valley in Pinal County.

The Science Center will provide education leaders with ideas as to how to improve and standardize their STEM education. In May 2014, the school districts and the Science Center will then present their collaboration to the Helios Education Foundation’s board.

Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent David Peterson said he is optimistic that the end result will be even more financial support from the Helios Education Foundation that will continue to propel the STEM education forward.

“We hope it will turn into several million dollars of future support,” Peterson said.

The Helios Education Foundation has a history of supporting education in Arizona. Their contributions range from a $5,000 donation to Back to School Clothing Drive in 2007 to a $10 million donation to the Arizona Scholarship Fund in 2013, according to the Helios Education Foundation website.

The organization has a program within its organization dedicated to STEM teaching and learning initiatives.

When Helios set out to invest in STEM education in Arizona, they vetted several organizations to see if the leadership, capacity and vision of each lined up with how they imagined the initiative would play out, said Jo Anne Vasquez, Helios vice president and program director for Helios’s Arizona Transition Years, teacher and curriculum initiatives.

“The Arizona Science Center has a new professional development part of their operations,” Vasquez said. “They had all the right stuff, so to say.”

Sharon Kortman, vice president of learning for the Arizona Science Center and overseer of the Center for Leadership in Learning, said she is excited that her department stood out to the Helios Education Foundation.

“Our mission is to positively impact educational leadership quality, teaching, and parent and community engagement for student learning,” Kortman said. “I think this project really brings all of those things together.”

The entire collaboration will be closely monitored by the Helios Education Foundation, which Vasquez said takes a hands-on approach to granting money.

“Our organization does not just write a check and walk away,” she said. “We are there to learn from our grantees and to make sure that things are going and running smoothly and according to plan.”

The ultimate goal is for students to begin and end their school career with the STEM education embedded throughout, Peterson said. While curriculum modifications won’t begin until the next phase is authorized, Peterson is confident they are up to the challenge.

“We have to be ready,” he said. “This is a unique and valuable opportunity that we cannot let go of.”

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