Local Initiatives

Arizona Co-op Boosts Skills of Rural Students

By Victoria A. Rocha | ECT Staff Writer Published: July 7th, 2014

Concerned about the state of jobs and education, an electric cooperative in Arizona has joined a trend to promote careers in science, technology, engineering and math among students.

Altar Valley students did much of their research on the trails at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. (Photo By: Newscom)

Altar Valley students did much of their research on the trails at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. (Photo By: Newscom)

Trico Electric Cooperative took the step by orchestrating an initial meeting between a high-poverty local school district and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

That led to a multimonth classroom program that tapped the desert’s natural wonders on behalf of science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.

“Science, technology, engineering and math are the backbone of our industry,” said Romi Carrell Wittman, director of marketing and communications at Marana, Ariz.-based Trico.

“With many folks set to retire from the utility industry in the next few years, it’s very important to educate the next generation and ready them for technical careers in the electric utility field,” she said.

Trico serves the Altar Valley School District, where more than 90 percent of K-8 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The district couldn’t afford high-tech labs or field trips, but the Sonoran Desert was in its backyard.

“A light bulb went off over my head,” said Wittman. “I had learned about the museum’s Desert Ark program, a hands-on program in schools, and I thought that would fit well with the district superintendent’s huge STEM initiative.”

Wittman was right. The recipient of a three-year grant from a local education foundation to boost STEM in the classrooms, the Altar Valley School District was eager to work with local partners.

The collaboration resulted in a customized version of the museum’s Desert Ark program for the school district’s 75 sixth graders and pre-kindergartners. The co-op funded the program, as well as school bus costs.

The older students learned about life sciences, specifically desert adaptation, and then prepared lessons to teach their pre-K  buddies. Both groups came together during a field trip to the museum and on joint picture books as a final project.

“The preschoolers learned how plants and animals adapt in the desert and loved being around the older kids,” said Kathryn Zanin, the STEM coordinator at the Altar Valley School District. “The middle school students learned what it meant to be responsible and why it’s important to take their education seriously. They saw that the younger students looked up to them for guidance and leadership.”

Debbie Colodner, the museum’s director of conservation education and science, credited the co-op for “providing the spark and energy to kickstart a relationship between the Desert Museum and Altar Valley Schools. I’m sure these students will never forget the unique features of the desert plants and animals they studied together.”

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