What began as an idea among a small group of people nearly five years ago to infuse the presence of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), throughout the state has grown beyond what many then would have imagined possible.


As a reaffirmation of that success, Arizona SciTech has reached a level of prominence that has others in the nation taking notice.


Arizona SciTech perhaps is best known for spearheading an annual science festival that debuted in early 2012. It has grown into that a series of more than 800 expos, workshops, conversations, exhibitions and tours held throughout the state. It recently was invited to become part of a new national effort to create 100 tight-knit local STEM networks—STEM ecosystems— that bring together collaborations to nurture and scale effective STEM learning opportunities for young people, especially girls and underserved populations.


The national STEM Ecosystems Initiative was launched in September with Arizona SciTech and 26 other inaugural communities being named to a national Community of Practice. All were scheduled to attend a workshop at the White House in early November to develop an agenda to convene and help expand a growing community of practice of local leaders tapped to broaden STEM opportunities. The goals include reaching 600,000 teachers and students in its first three years.


“Rich, engaging STEM education is a crucial underpinning of a vibrant economy,” said Steve Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council. “Tomorrow’s tech companies will be founded and staffed by the young men and women in classrooms today. Programs like this one ensure provide opportunities for our youth to engage with the world around them through the lenses of science, engineering, and mathematics.”


Arizona SciTech is anchored at both the Arizona Commerce Authority and the Arizona Technology Council Foundation, in collaboration with the Arizona Board of Regents, the Arizona Science Center, Arizona State University, and the University of Arizona.


Classroom and Beyond


Members of the Community of Practice already are demonstrating cross-sector collaborations to deliver rigorous, effective pre-K-16 instruction in STEM learning. These collaborations happen in schools and beyond the classroom—in afterschool and summer programs, at home, in science centers, libraries and other places, both virtual and physical.


They spark young people's engagement, develop their knowledge, strengthen their persistence, and nurture their sense of identity and belonging in STEM disciplines. As these STEM ecosystems evolve, a student will be able to connect with real-world learning opportunities, leading to STEM-related careers and opportunities.

Arizona SciTech’s participation is a demonstration of their progress in developing a strong STEM community and recognition of their commitment to continue this work. Jeremy Babendure, the festival’s executive director, will lead a small group to Washington, D.C., that will include Betsy Hargove, superintendent of the Avondale Elementary School District, and a representative from Arizona SciTech sponsor Freeport-McMoRan Foundation. He welcomes the opportunity to meet others in the group and exchange ideas.


“I’m always for learning a lot by talking to groups that are doing similar things,” Babendure says.


Arizona SciTech definitely has ideas that could help other groups gain the same type of benefits it has gained. For example, some groups could be interested in borrowing the idea for the Chief Science Officer Initiative, which launched this year with more than 120 Arizona middle and high school students participating in the pilot.


“All too often, we have workforce-related discussions and potentially the most important stakeholder is missing: students,” Babendure says. “The initiative is an effort to develop a voice for students in our state’s developing conversation about STEM and education.”


The nature of the Chief Science Officer position is to champion campus-wide engagement, interest and popularity of science and innovation, and serve as an ambassador to the external science and innovation community. Each officer will serve as the school’s point of contact to streamline the ability for science-based organizations to meaningfully connect with schools.


Voice of Schools


Initiative organizers realize all too often that other organizations are interested in working with schools but are challenged with changes in school leadership and teacher contacts, and evolving student interests. The Chief Science Officers will serve as the “voice” for their student body, identifying science-related opportunities such as guest speakers, workshops, field trips, science nights and clubs.


While students are the focus on this program, Arizona SciTech goes beyond just working with young people. Organizers of the festival proudly mention that the event “informs Arizonans age 3 to 103 how STEM will drive our state.” As opposed to being one type of ecosystem for one segment, Babendure says, Arizona SciTech offers global support by kickstarting 20 different ecosystems throughout Arizona with events such as the festival and the annual Innovation Arizona Summit, designed to encourage attendees to expand their networks and engage in discussions about STEM. Arizona SciTech is “more of a collaborative network,” he says.


Part of that comes from Arizona SciTech being housed at the Arizona Commerce Authority, with business and industry being at the crux of the entire operation. “Our approach needs to support a holistic approach,” Babendure says.


He says being named to the STEM Ecosystems Initiative provides Arizona SciTech some national validation for its approach that could prove useful within the state as well as nationally. The initiative already has connected Babendure with an expert in national outreach to begin brainstorming ways for the ecosystem here to move forward in making new partnerships. If the interest by the STEM Ecosystems Initiative is any indication, there will be plenty of organizations wanting to make an Arizona connection. “We are a leader nationally in what we do,” he says.


Photo Credit: Arizona SciTech