SALYERSVILLE – In efforts to make the region more marketable to industry, energy cooperatives have joined forces for a unified goal: to educate the workforce of tomorrow.
The $4.5 million project, lead by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives and the nationally-known Project Lead The Way, provided funding for 100 teachers in the region to not only get their master’s degrees, but earn their STEM certification and National Board Certification.
The main focus on the project is the STEM training, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Several years ago regional energy cooperatives banded together as Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperative, and funded surveys to pinpoint what needs to be improved in order to encourage new industry to move to Eastern Kentucky. The main takeaway from the survey was that the region needs teachers that are STEM and nationally board certified, showing corporations they would have an educated workforce if they relocated here.
Currently only 3 percent of teachers nationwide have a National Board Certification, and until now, no Magoffin County Schools teachers had it.
Since the initiative began around the same time as SOAR – Shaping Our Appalachian Region – came together, the two joined forces, with this current project being dubbed SOARSTEM. On Friday, the community recognized the first round of teachers near completion of meeting the requirements of a master’s degree, National Board Certification and STEM Certification from Project Lead The Way.
On July 20 at the Magoffin County High School the teachers recognized in a graduation ceremony, celebrating roughly half of 63 graduating this year, with another ceremony held in Corbin earlier this month.
Of those honored, Magoffin’s Brandi McFarland and Samantha Rose, sponsored by Licking Valley RECC, were recognized on Friday.
Rodney Hitch, the director of Economic Development for Kentucky Touchstone Energy and East Kentucky Power Cooperative, explained that the goal of SOARSTEM started with the 16 cooperatives, with over 1 million customers, all over the state, trying to improve their communities.
“Being co-ops, these are owned and managed by you, so anything that affects you, our customers, is a great concern for us,” Hitch explained.
He said they wanted to bring industry to this area, so they traveled to companies to find out why, even though they could offer quality workers, the companies were not locating to Eastern Kentucky.
The key seemed to be the low number of nationally board-certified educators, so he said they started talking to Morehead State University to see if there was anything they could do to change the demographic of the area, and he said they came up with a plan.
From there, the Appalachian Regional Commission gave them $100,000 and one year to plan the project, Hitch explained. Morehead State University, the University of Pikeville and Union College partnered with the project. They then picked the 27 counties with the highest level of poverty and highest unemployment to open up the teacher selection process, with only 100 slots available.
“It was not an easy selection process,” Hitch explained, with extensive interviews and critiques of the teachers interested in the project.
“These teachers had to commit to the three-year program and the school districts had to promise they would have a job for six years,” Hitch said. “That’s what makes this even more wonderful, to see the commitment all the way around. We’re calling these teachers the ‘100 Elite.’”
Through many different partners, they were able to cover all the teachers’ expenses, including materials, fees, the classes, and more, in order to get all the “100 Elite” their master’s, and certified by the STEM and National Board.
“There’s no question we can create a wonderful, STEM-based workforce,” Hitch said. “The ‘100 Elite’ will go back into these schools and train other teachers. That’s 14,000 students receiving STEM education with Project Lead the Way right now, and that’s how we get that workforce. Yes, we’ve had hardships. Yes, we’ve struggled. It comes down to teachers and education.”
Hitch said there are currently one million STEM-based jobs right now and they can’t find the workers to fill them.
Glade Montgomery, the senior vice president and chief of staff of Project Lead The Way, explained the STEM training their non-profit offers to schools nationally.
“We’re teaching kids to think critically, to collaborate and to communicate,” Montgomery said. “We’re teaching them it’s alright to make mistakes. We learn from that.”
Montgomery highlighted how the STEM education utilizes active participation to teach students, kindergarten through high school, to teach the key subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“We want to catch kids at an early age,” Montgomery said. “Studies have shown kids make the decision to like math and science as early as second grade.”
Montgomery said Project Lead The Way is working with the SOARSTEM project, the state for grants and with workforce development in order to try to prepare children to be the “workforce of the future.”
Project Lead The Way is a national non-profit organization that is the leading provider for STEM education training. The organization started 21 years ago in New York and is now utilized in 11,000 schools from all 50 states.
Representative Rocky Adkins noted that the private and public-sponsored project is extremely important on the state level, from the education aspect, as well as for workforce development.
“For us to be able to check that box for education and on the economic development side, it will show industries that Eastern Kentucky is the place to go,” Adkins said.
Adkins said by changing the education infrastructure, along with the investment in economic development, they will be able to showcase the main asset of the area: the people.
“The greatest thing we have here is our people,” Adkins said. We have the greatest workforce there is. We’ve had a downturn in the coal industry, but we’ve got the most brilliant workforce and we’re here today to try to diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky.
“What excites me is they are going to need 300 to 500,000 new workers in the next 20 years and where are they going to relocate?” Adkins said. “They’re going to go where there’s an educated workforce.”
Also showcased on Friday at the high school were middle school students who were attending a STEM camp last week. Students from Magoffin, as well as surrounding counties, actually built and programmed their own robots on Thursday and Friday morning, then by Friday afternoon were competing with each other through a variety of challenges and obstacle courses, seeing who could have the collective fastest time.
The camp showcased the educational training of the teachers involved in the program and the kinds of activities they use to keep students engaged in the STEM subjects.
The duo, named Beemo, made up of Zane Whitaker and Coltin Vallandingham, both soon-to-be seventh-graders, won the three-way tie for first, beating the nearest time by almost a minute.
Whitaker said the camp was challenging, but really fun. Both students said they are interested in engineering, especially after building the robot.
The SOARSTEM partners include: Toyota USA Foundation, Morehead State University, Project Lead The Way, University of Pikeville, Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, Union College, Kentucky Educational Development Corporation, Department for Local Government, Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, Kentucky Education & Workforce Development Cabinet, Lockheed Martin, Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, Appalachian Regional Commission, QK4 Engineering Planning, Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, Interapt and Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives.