Science Fest aims to spur early interest in STEM

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C Spire robot Pepper spoke to the audience about the upcoming Mississippi Science Fest during a press conference Wednesday.

Business leaders, local and state government officials teamed up with a highly intelligent, tiny robot Wednesday to talk up the merits of an upcoming science festival.

Scheduled for Sept. 22-23, the Mississippi Science Fest is a chance to expose children to STEM — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math education.

This year’s event is the inaugural festival, although the Mississippi Children’s Museum held a smaller version of the event last year.

“There was such a great response to it that it sort of indicated to leadership at Children’s Museum that this was something people really wanted and people were really excited about,” said Mary Alex Thigpen, director of marketing and communications for the Mississippi Children’s Museum.

More than 600 people attended the pilot event, and Thigpen said Children’s Museum president and CEO Susan Garrard reached out to fellow directors within the LeFleur’s Musuem District to discuss hosting a larger festival this year.

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

C Spire robot Pepper spoke to the audience about the upcoming Mississippi Science Fest during a press conference Wednesday.

A $10 ticket grants visitors access on festival day to each museum in the district — the Children’s Museum, Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame — where they can meet different exhibitors and attend different events and programs geared towards STEM.

C Spire robot Pepper told the audience information about the festival and where to find more information (mssciencefest.org). She will attend the festival to talk with students and other visitors.

“We know that STEM jobs are growing at an exponential rate, especially in the United States and even in Mississippi,” Thigpen said. She cited a report from the Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America (ASTRA), which predicted an 11 percent increase in STEM jobs in Mississippi between 2016 and 2026.

“The fact is, if we’re going to see long term economic growth and prosperity in Mississippi, we must improve the educational attainment level of our citizens,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said at the press conference.

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov Tate Reeves and Pepper, the robot at a press conference Wednesday

“That’s why its critically important that we continue to invest more in educational programs, but it’s also why it’s critically important that we are willing to come together for an event like this, the Mississippi Science Fest 2017, to celebrate the opportunities for the future.”

On Sept. 22, each museum will host STEM-related field trips where students will interact with STEM professionals and participate in hands-on activities centered around math and science literacy. That night, Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise will deliver a keynote speech at the Agriculture and Forestry Museum.

The Mississippi Science Fest kicks off the following day, Sept. 23, where attendees can talk with organizations and individuals who work in science, technology, engineering and math-related industries. LeFleur Museum District president and executive director of the Agriculture and Forestry Museum Aaron Rodgers said the event will feature activities “for the youngest engineers among us up to those in the professional fields.”

The ASTRA report also listed Mississippi high school students’ interest in STEM by gender: In 2017, 41.2 percent of the male students surveyed indicated their interest, versus just 10.9 percent for female students.

Thigpen said this year, Science Fest will feature many female representatives, so that female students can see people who look like them who work in science and technology.

It’s important to expose “girls to just the opportunity to meet females that work in astrophysics or that are chemists or doctors or work in robotics,” Thigpen said.

Educators outside of the museum are working to expose students to more STEM-related subjects as well. During the 2016-17 school year, the Mississippi Department of Education introduced the Computer Science for Mississippi (CS4MS) pilot program to 34 districts across the state.

In total, 50 high schools and 106 elementary schools launched the program which offered courses in coding, digital literacy, keyboarding, and robotics, according to a release from MDE.  High Schoolers took a course called Exploring Computer Science.

The program is being continued this year with the goal of creating a K-12 computer science pipeline in all public schools in Mississippi by 2024, according to MDE.

MDE director of the office of career and technical education Mike Mulvihill said the program helps students think differently in non-science classes as well.

“If you go through computer science project or program, it is a very rigorous, logical way of approaching a project,” he said. “We think that the rigor and the logical way you have to approach this carries over into any of your classes.”

Mulvihill said the department learned last week that the National Science Foundation awarded MDE a 3-year, $770,000 grant for the CS4MS program. In addition to the funds, the grant allows them access to national training programs and curriculum from other states that use similar programs.

According to code.org, there are currently more than 530,000 computing jobs open across the country, but less than 43,000 computer science students graduated into the workforce last year. In Mississippi there are more than 1,000 open jobs but just 155 computer science students graduated.

Mulvihill said the CS4MS program aims to plug gaps in access to computers and science so that the playing field is more level.

“Kindergarteners and first graders really have a natural love of this (technology),” Mulvihill said. The program hopes to address the disparity between students who have access to computers at home and those who don’t. “It’s an easy way to help Mississippi move forward from a technological standpoint.”

The program will also help prepare students for work in all types of industries. He noted many non-STEM fields are using more automation in the workplace.

“Industries that you consider to be really manual, old school types of programs, they are very very much high tech now,” Mulvihill said. “So they’re using automation for programs, for cutting timber, ways that you change orders for how you build something.”

With better-prepared students graduating into the workforce, companies may find Mississippi a more appealing place to set up in, he said.

“It makes Mississippi more attractive for these highly automated companies, because they go ‘okay, we have a workforce where can hit the ground running.’”