Program puts pupils FIRST

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Last Tuesday’s “News Hour” on Channel 10 closed with a story about FIRST: Fostering Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. FIRST, based in Manchester, N.H., was founded back in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamin.

Teams of high-school students, assisted by local companies, school staff and volunteers, build robots designed to perform specific tasks: Putting balls over, under and through hoops was the thrust of this year’s national competition. More than 1,200 teams from all over the United States participated. The point: Hook young people on science and technology and encourage them to pursue careers in those fields.

FIRST and other programs that like it that integrate community resources into classroom learning and stress hands-on or “experiential” learning were much on my mind next day at the monthly Community Advisory Panel meeting at NewPage Corp.

CAP membership includes some fine River Valley folk; at that meeting were Dixfield’s Donna and Norman “Butch” Towle; Peru’s Bill Hine and Nick Waugh; Rumford’s Jolene and Dick Lovejoy; Byron’s Patty Duguay; Rumford’s Lem Cissel and me.

Most meetings, last week’s no exception, are educational; we’re offered information about the workings of the mill, its environmental and business challenges, its operations. Last Wednesday, we learned about the work of technical services, domain of dozens of engineers.

It was an excellent presentation that moved Lem Cissel to inquire about the mill’s relationship with local schools, which led, in turn, to a discussion about how community organizations and businesses could make a real impact on student achievement, student interest and ambition, especially in science and technology.

Lem and Patty were fresh off the Healthy Community’s annual forum where education and community support for our young people were front and center. How, Lem asked, did the mill encourage high school students to seek careers in engineering and return to the River Valley to work at the mill?

Some of our conversation was discouraging. Guest speakers in classrooms, day-long tours of the mill had inspired but few student to pursue careers in sciences and technology. A rough profile of SADs 21’s and 43’s plans for the fall confirm that conclusion.

Economic development here in the River Valley – and all around the world – demands more and more workers skilled in science and technology. If we want our young people to return from post-secondary education to live and work here, hadn’t we better support and enhance – press for – our school districts’ efforts to engage students in these fields?

One measure of the shortfall is NewPage’s experience this year in offering eight $2,500 scholarships to students planning to be engineers.

Sonya Janke, who is from around here, coordinates community relations for the mill; she told me that she’d first promoted the scholarship opportunity to “local” schools, Mt. Blue, Telstar, Dirigo and Mountain Valley.

Only one application came from Dirigo. She spread the net wider and extended the deadline.

Ultimately, eight students received awards: one in Buckfield; one in Dirigo; one in Leavitt; three in Oxford Hills; one in St. Dom’s; one in Telstar.

“Of course it is our first year with the engineering requirement,” Sonya told me. She hopes to do more outreach, especially to parents next year to encourage them to get kids to apply for the NewPage scholarships.

Innovation in education, I believe, must come from professional educators. But if River Valley school administrators and teachers actively involve community partners in envisioning, planning and implementing strategies for enriching teaching and learning in science and technology, Ms. Janke will soon be swamped with applications for those NewPage scholarships. And watch out, FIRST. We’re coming for you!

Linda Farr Macgregor lives in Rumford with her husband, Jim. She is a freelance writer and author of “Rumford Stories.”

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