Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) and its public and private partners launched an initiative to develop a statewide STEM Agenda in an effort to provide greater focus to business, philanthropic and educational resources being invested in the advancement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.  It will also formalize a single statewide STEM Network to facilitate high-quality science and math education. Expect More Arizona spoke with SFAz vice-president Darcy Renfro, who also serves as executive director of SFAz STEM Initiatives, about what this means for Arizona school children.

EMA:  How viable is the concept of a uniform focus on STEM education in Arizona?

RENFRO: The time is right – a plan for STEM education has already been drafted for the Race to the Top competition and many stakeholders are on board with this concept. We know that to be taken seriously in the global marketplace, Arizona has to improve student achievement in STEM education. And we have to do it now. Many of the programs and resources we need already exist – it’s a matter of pulling them together and shaping them into workable solutions that will have greater impact.

EMA: What exactly is a “STEM Network”?

RENFRO: The STEM Network will support and coordinate a proactive, integrated statewide approach for Arizona students to succeed in education, work and life through a multifaceted strategy. It will include discovering and developing promising practices both in Arizona and the nation, including the ability to commonly evaluate effectiveness and impacts of various programs, policies and interventions that use evidence to drive decisions.

EMA: How inclusive will this effort be?

RENFRO: To be successful, we have to work as partners in the process and we have to cast a wide net including the private sector, nonprofit groups, state government, local school districts and many other education-related entities.  The process also needs to be streamlined and coordinated. There are so many good examples of innovation and creativity in science and math education.  It only benefits us to replicate those successes statewide and provide options for educators and students. The STEM Network will make it possible to do that.

EMA: You plan to have two work meetings by March. What do you hope to accomplish?

RENFRO: We will be seeking specific input to shape strategic priorities for the Arizona STEM Network. We will also be seeking best practices and local solutions in STEM from teachers, administrators, businesses and local leaders. That information will be valuable to formulating the final business plan to officially launch the Arizona STEM Network.

EMA: How different is this group from anything else out there right now?

RENFRO: The issues around STEM and the need for strong STEM skills to support college and career readiness, personal prosperity and economic growth are not new. What is new is that we are approaching the problem collectively in manner not previously contemplated. We also are constructing the bridge between industry and education to ensure students are learning what they need to build the skill set to help them compete for the very best jobs. If we graduate students from high school who excel in STEM subjects, employers will want to come here to take advantage of the very best and most skilled workforce around. That benefits them and the rest of the state, diversifying our economy and transforming Arizona into a world-class business destination.

EMA: This sounds like it is all about listening and finding real solutions. Is that your goal?

RENFRO: The whole reason for bringing this group together is to show that we are serious about elevating STEM education in this state. Business talks a lot about the need to improve education but often does not know how or where to engage. Teachers have too often been blamed rather than listened to and provided adequate supports to improve student outcomes. Many others in education have been subjected to the “flavor of the month” where rules and regulations in constant flux, forcing too much energy toward compliance and less on creatively solving problems. The STEM Network will provide leadership, support and a platform for reducing to practice what we know can work for students. It will do so with the input and knowledge of all impacted sectors and for the benefit of the entire state. That is a new approach to education.