In July 2019, the governor of Virginia established a STEM Education Commission for the state, with the goal of eventually launching a statewide STEM network. Having such a network, proponents said, would provide a united vision for Virginia’s many STEM programs, which had been developed in isolation. A network could aid communication and sharing of best practices to use and pitfalls to avoid, while setting goals and common terms. We chatted with Dr. Tina Manglicmot, Director of STEM for the Virginia Department of Education, about the state’s plan in September 2019.

Efforts to establish a STEM network in Virginia have made progress, though these efforts have slowed in the past few months thanks to the hurdles imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. To check on the work done so far in Virginia, including a State STEM Summit held last fall and ongoing development of a State STEM Plan, we contacted Chuck English, Virginia STEM coordinator:

Q: Tell us about your role as Virginia STEM coordinator and how have you been involved in the creation of a STEM network in the state.

Chuck headshotA: My role is unique. I work out of the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond but in strong partnership with the state’s secretary of education, the Virginia Department of Education and a variety of state and business stakeholders interested in the outcomes of our STEM culture in Virginia.

I am assisting in leading the Governor’s STEM Education Commission, which is officially led by Virginia’s first lady, Pamela Northam. I worked with Secretary of Education Atif Qarni and the Virginia Department of Education STEM director, Dr. Tina Manglicmot, to help build the case for a STEM Education Commission.

The state is doing great things in the name of STEM, from pre-K through higher education and workforce development. It is unfortunate that, at times in the past, we have competed for the same dollars, time and effort. One of the things I want to emphasize is the collaborative impacts across the state when we work together. When our work is aligned, we can help everyone see the potential in STEM as well as improve the state both educationally and economically.

Q: Why and how did efforts arise to create a STEM network?

A: Virginia has focused additional resources on STEM a few times. There were a couple of previous people in my role who laid some excellent groundwork in terms of connecting people and ideas. Many of these connections even started some networking efforts that never took off due to the lack of critical mass, but their ideas, initiatives and work are what we are using to build upon today.

Earlier partners include people from schools, universities and regional businesses. What we needed this time was to push the effort to the next level with governor’s office support. It helped that we were asking for a STEM Education Commission while we were getting high marks for STEM job growth, small business development and education outcomes at the same time.

The search by Amazon for a second headquarters solidified a need to formalize our STEM efforts and to create a plan that helped the entire commonwealth, not only select areas within Virginia. It was a time to see that our efforts are growing, but growing in a variety of directions without some state-level aspirational goals and definitions to help solidify a common language with our work.

I have worked with a couple of groups, including a collaborative effort of Virginia universities, that helped pull together a STEM Summit and draft a white paper that helped direct some of the State STEM Plan efforts.

Q: How has development of the network progressed? What role did the Virginia STEM Summit play in your efforts?

A: The State STEM Plan efforts were growing quickly until COVID-19 changed the dynamics of our meetings and our ability to collect voices and perspectives around the commonwealth. The STEM Education Commission met several times and, in the meetings between August and February, created our vision, mission and basic definitions for our work.

The efforts were quick given that the commission was a group of nearly 40 people representing all of the Department of Education’s superintendent’s regions across Virginia and from many different stakeholder sectors. It was fantastic seeing educators, business leaders, non-profits and students work together to build a State STEM Plan.

STEMx provided a grant that allowed me and Dr. Manglicmot to visit five rural areas of the state. Our goal was to share our ideas and thoughts about the State STEM Plan with them and provide a platform to collect their opinions, experiences and perspectives to add to the document.

The State STEM Summit, held in the fall of 2019, helped us identify the areas that felt underrepresented. Some of the attendees helped us pinpoint locations and local leaders to host many of our open community meetings. The summit also started a dialogue that helped us develop the questions we needed to ask and to create a baseline for us to identify some of the differences in how people perceive STEM education, literacy and work across the state.

As a result, we also attended nearly a half dozen educator and business conferences to share similar information, collect more perspectives and ensure that this plan will be mindful of all Virginia.

Q: Where do things stand now?

A: The STEM Commission and State STEM Plan draft are the first steps. If you had asked me about three months ago, I believe I had a personal idea of where we may go next, but now I am going to reserve my thoughts while I rethink our priorities and how to best serve a changing educational landscape due to COVID-19.

I have read and asked STEM Education Commission members to read a wide variety of State STEM Plans. It has helped to look at other models and interview other leaders about the pros and cons of their models. They have all helped to let us know highlights as well as pitfalls to avoid. Now it is a time to see what fits into our culture.

The plan will need to reach a wide range of audiences, from urban and tech-oriented to rural with limited broadband access. We have research sectors and substantial manufacturing facilities. The plan we end up with will need to be flexible enough to help each region make STEM relevant for themselves and the students within it. I suspect we will end up with a hybrid model, including the foundations and experiences from several states’ initiatives.

Q: What is the timetable?

A: The timetable has to be fluid, given the changes brought about by COVID-19. Honestly, it was flexible before the pandemic. The State STEM Plan was due in June; however, we slowed the process to ensure we included everyone’s voice in the document. Our current plan is to have the first State STEM Plan draft on the governor’s desk by the end of the summer. The plan, in its current draft, includes some immediate grassroots efforts we can implement this fall. Other aspects will take additional fundraising efforts and will likely be delayed unless we find a novel way to collaborate with other partners.

The STEM Education Commission is keeping the vision and mission pretty aspirational. We are currently working on areas of strength and concern to identify potential solutions and pathways to encourage continued growth in Virginia’s STEM literacy and employability.

Q: Has the current pandemic affected your efforts in other ways?

A: The pandemic is shifting a lot in terms of the culture of education, workforce training and methods in which we engage audiences in promoting STEM. COVID-19 will have an immediate as well as a long-term impact. One concern I have is making sure we maintain relevance when it is easy to pick other priorities, especially in the school setting. STEM is vital. STEM literacy is what will help us as a society better understand the decisions being made in terms of new behaviors, norms and expectations.

The COVID-19 disruption also gives us the chance to look at ways we may be able to influence institutional change. Can we take some of the time and help create an effective and efficient model for integrated STEM? Can we dovetail that into reading in the content areas? Can we build a model for education that helps students better identify how the skills and content they learn fit together to answer life’s challenges?

I believe that the circumstances we find ourselves in also create breaks in our routines and may create the inroads needed to help develop new patterns of behavior.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about this effort?

A: The state’s timetable has changed for the State STEM Plan. It is hard to know any of the details or identify dates on a calendar when so much is still in transition. We can always continue our work moving forward, keeping the STEM Education Commission’s momentum and, we hope, enlisting more people as we all see how STEM is now part of our everyday lives.

It is hard not to see STEM in the news, from PPE design and development in makerspaces to understanding the numbers and factors of influence, such as social distancing. It is a time to take this new variable in our lives and use it as a catalyst for productive change – to help people see how STEM impacts their everyday lives.

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