Best of the West: Expanding access to STEM education; community-driven water conservation; North America’s largest research forest; hiking 1,000+ miles of Yellowstone

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Jan. 2, 2023. (Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock and Yellowstone National Park)

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) will grow two times faster than other occupations from 2019-2029. As a result, nonprofits throughout the West are working to rapidly expand access to STEM education – especially in rural and underserved areas.

The Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance in Oklahoma has recently launched an after-school STEM program that allows participants to earn a digital badge that certifies their skills, which could help with college admissions, scholarships, and employment. 

Along with providing after-school programs, The Pinhead Institute in Colorado is working to reduce barriers to STEM education by bringing prominent scientists into regional schools to help spark curiosity among young students.  

“While we love offering after-school programs and collaborations, we understand our limits as educators and value the knowledge of outside sources and people working directly in STEM fields," the Pinhead Institute's program coordinator, Elena Hausser, told the Telluride Daily. "These talks are also super impactful because they introduce concepts to kids that are relevant and going on right now in the scientific community that may not be taught in school.”

Others hope to spark inspiration by providing opportunities for hands-on learning. The annual Taking Flight event in Arizona’s East Valley offers interactive experiences related to aviation, aeronautics, aerospace, engineering, robotics, unmanned aerial vehicles, and rocketry. Attendees participate in activities like flying RC airplanes, quadcopters, and multiple flight simulators.

Prairie STEM out of Nebraska is bringing hands-on technology lessons to classrooms in Omaha and Lincoln. Before expanding into schools, the nonprofit started small with learning boxes that included engaging activities. 

Robotics programs have become an especially effective way to engage the next generation of STEM leaders. In December, The Wonder Institute in Teton County, Wyoming, hosted a Lego robotics competition with 125 fourth and fifth-grade students.  

“This is great to see this kind of excitement, especially in this town where the focus is usually about sports,” Gary Duquette, the Robotics Lab Leader for The Wonder Institute, said. “There are a lot of opportunities for kids to explore STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] and at this age, they still love to play. As they get older, they get an opportunity to do more and more. So this is a program that starts with Legos and ends with $10,000 robotics in high school.”

Grand Forks Public Schools received $38,000 from the North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education to implement additional STEM learning opportunities. The grant gives preference to VEX Robotics, the fastest-growing robotics competition globally. Students build and program robots that operate by remote control and autonomously.  

Community Water Sharing: As California grapples with its driest three-year period on record, residents reliant on the Russian River developed a plan for community water conservation. The agreement allows users to voluntarily conserve water and share extra water with those who possess lower-priority water rights. A four-week test run in 2022 helped wine producers keep grapevines alive that wouldn’t have survived without shared resources.

North America’s Largest Research Forest: The Oregon State Land Board unanimously voted to create North America's largest research forest.  Previously, the 80,000 acres of land were part of a state forest that struggled to generate revenue for public schools. With the new designation, the land serves as an area for scientific discovery and contributes to conservation, education, and local economies. It will remain a publicly owned forest and partner with Oregon State University for management. “We can be proud that current and future generations of Oregonians will benefit from this valuable natural resource,” Treasurer Tobias Read said in a statement.

Record-breaking Mountain Restaurant: Colorado’s Summit County is now home to the highest restaurant in North America. Sitting atop an elevation of 12,456 feet, Il Rifugio highlights panoramic views of the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. With sustainability being a top priority, the restaurant contains the continent’s highest solar array, composting toilets, and no running water. With no foot-passenger lift service up to the European-inspired restaurant, it's designed for experienced skiers only. 

Hiking all of Yellowstone: A man who set out to explore 1,000+ acres of Yellowstone National Park 25 years ago closed out 2022 by reaching his goal. Each year, Ken Duell took one to two trips to the park. The visits ranged from short day hikes to multi-day backpacking trips. “Every time I see a new area of the park, I’ve had what I call a magic moment,” Duell said to Yellowstone National Park officials. “These moments created a rich quilt of memories for me.”

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