City Spotlight: Opportunities STEM from Afterschool Programming in Umatilla, Oregon

In an era of rapid globalization and economic competition, career opportunities in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields are abundant. Economists and educators agree that STEM programs can help provide diverse postsecondary education and career opportunities to students.

According to a report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, the unemployment rate for STEM workers during the Great Recession was considerably lower than the unemployment rate for those in non-STEM fields. Despite a high demand for new workers to enter this fast-growing industry, the American workforce faces a serious skills gap.

In many cases, STEM jobs go unfilled because applicants lack the necessary training. Fortunately, local officials across the country are beginning to recognize afterschool programming as an opportunity for increased STEM instruction. In an effort to ensure that students are prepared to succeed, city leaders are taking action to prioritize STEM education outside of the normal school day.

In Umatilla, Oregon, a community of 7,000 with an agriculture-based economy, many young people did not see a career in science, technology, engineering or math as an option for themselves. Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe wanted to change that though. She thought that with the right kind of exposure and experience, Umatilla youth could be just as motivated to become programmers or engineers as their peers from urban areas.

In an effort to provide as many students as possible with a competitive STEM education, the Umatilla School District instituted the STEM Academy for K-12 students. The academy receives funding from various foundation grants and support from local colleges and community organizations.

Programming is designed to suit different age groups, with the intention of fostering an early interest in math and science that is nurtured through middle and high school. Program leaders are committed to including all students with an interest in science and technology. When staff noticed that a smaller number of girls were enrolling in STEM Academy programs, they made a conscious effort to hire more female instructors and emphasize the equal role of women in technology.

STEM Academy educators take advantage of ready-made resources from FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that designs accessible, easy-to-implement STEM programming as well as many other resources and opportunities. Backed by local government, various community stakeholders, and a committed school administration, Umatilla students are benefitting from STEM Academy programming.

For example, in 2013 and 2014, the Umatilla High School Robotics Team qualified for and competed in the World Robotics Championships, an experience that opened students up to the very real possibility of excelling in STEM professions.

In a rural community facing unemployment and intergenerational poverty, STEM education in Umatilla is opening new doors for young people. Cities can identify ways to support their own young people by looking to Umatilla’s example of innovation and local support for STEM education.