By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — The world has changed, especially in Niagara Falls. What once was an industrial hub with factories building products and cutting-edge power plants harnessing hydropower, a shift in educational priorities has taken students out of the assembly line and into more artistic pursuits.
National Grid, Niagara University and the Niagara Falls City School District are teaming up in a $60,000 initiative to bring educational value back to the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Or as it's more commonly referred to now, STEM.
"There is a real crisis evolving in our national education system, including here in Western New York as our children's awareness is low with respect to the applied nature of STEM, leaving them unprepared for the future job market that is demanding these professional skills, Dennis Eisenbeck, regional executive for National Grid, said.
National Grid's financial commitment will allow 45 Niagara Falls teachers to study more effective and efficient means of educating in the more technical subjects through a graduate level program at Niagara University. The teachers will each receive 45 hours of instruction and in-class training and will receive a certificate upon completion.
While this is going on, the university is also holding a pair of summer camps for 300 Western New York students in grades three through nine, providing an opportunity to further enhance their understanding and comprehension of the disciplines. One for students in grades three through eight will challenge students from July 22-25 with a focus on solar, wind and hydroelectric energy.
The second will be exclusively for girls grades seven through nine, exploring alternate energy, conservation and preparing energy audits from July 29 to Aug. 1.
It's a push to keep students in Western New York after graduation by providing them skills for career openings already here. It's called a skills gap, and Eisenbeck said it needs to be filled because companies, like National Grid, have openings with no one to fill them.
Filling the gap will keep people here and keep businesses here.
"Each of our 45 teachers will go through this program," he said. "They'll take the information and pass it on to their students. Now, you have the students. And you have to think each of them has at least two friends. And each of those friends has to have at least two friends.
"Our future is these students. The next innovator, the next big thinker, the next developer might be one of these children in school now and we'll lose them without this instruction. We'll lose them and we won't even know we've lost them. We need to push thinking. That's what innovation is all about."
Why in Niagara Falls? Last year, the district announced it would build a STEM laboratory in each of its school buildings — two in the high school — as part of its $67 million Inventing Tomorrow capital project.
It's a major shift in education approach from the past, even statewide, Falls Superintendent Cynthia Bianco said.
"When we started petitioning the state for funding for our project, they said 'STEM? What's STEM?'" she said. "Now they're calling us, looking to us because it's the new approach.
"Students in our district, especially, tend to be more poor, are more likely to continue the cycle of poverty. With STEM, you're giving them a chance to do something more."
"As our teachers will say, we're on the verge of something different here," added Lynne Tompkins, administrator at the high school and STEM coordinator district-wide. "The lessons are going to be highly exciting as the students deal with more hands-on math science and technology instruction."Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.