TWIN FALLS — As he teaches students about science, technology, engineering and math, Todd Anderson is working in a space at Robert Stuart Middle School designed decades ago for wood shop classes.
While students worked on laptop computers Friday, the other half of the classroom — workbenches and tools — sat untouched.
With limitations in available technology equipment, “there’s just things we can’t do,” Anderson said. “Everything in design is done on computers. It just is.”
Help is coming. Robert Stuart Middle School recently received a $27,400 grant from the Dart Foundation, a private family foundation that serves communities nationwide.
The money will be used for technology upgrades for Anderson’s STEM classroom, including computers, several sets of robotics kits and 3D printers.
Dart Foundation’s manager wasn’t available to comment Friday. In addition to this latest funding, the foundation has awarded more than $13,000 in requests to the Twin Falls School District since 2014.
Anderson said he hopes at least some of the new equipment will be available for his students to use before Thanksgiving.
He wants to give students opportunities to discover if they’re interested in STEM. If they do, there are plenty of job options for when they get older.
“We know there’s such a high demand for these things,” he said.
There’s a big push for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in order to help meet workforce needs. More than 3,800 STEM jobs here in the Gem State were unfilled in 2016, according to the Idaho STEM Action Center, and that led to $14 million in unrealized state tax revenue.
Anderson teaches a STEM elective class full time at Robert Stuart Middle School, with multiple class periods. Previously, Robert Stuart’s program was part-time, with a teacher shared between two schools.
On Friday, seventh- and eighth-graders were on laptops working on a physics simulation game called “IncrediBots.”
Students build something virtually to accomplish a goal. One student accidentally led his virtual robot to fall off a cliff. He and a classmate sitting next to him reacted loudly.
Students work on the simulation every Friday — a break from their regular lessons, which lately have focused on rockets. Eighth-grader Nya Lee, 13, said they’re learning about the parts of a rocket.
Also, “we’re learning how engineering is in everything we do,” Nya said. And the class, she said, is a chance to come up with creative ideas.
Anderson said one thing he loves about engineering is there are many solutions to the same problem.
Seventh-grader Conner Franklin, 12, said he likes the STEM class because it’s “actually useful” and isn’t a core subject like English or math. “I like that we get to design stuff.”
Anderson is in his first year with the Twin Falls School District. After graduating from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, he taught engineering classes for 11 years in northern Virginia’s Fairfax County.
“I had everything I ever wanted there,” Anderson said about schools in Virginia, and he never wrote a grant. Before moving to the Magic Valley, he already had experience teaching seventh- and eighth-graders, and in summer camps and after-school programs.
But Anderson and his family decided they wanted to move back to the western United States, where all of their relatives live, including in Twin Falls.
Over the summer — before Anderson even started his new job — he completed an application for the Dart Foundation grant. He heard about the opportunity from L.T. Erickson, secondary programs director for the Twin Falls School District, who hired him.
The foundation awarded the full amount of the request. “It was a good way to start the year,” Anderson said.
The Dart Foundation, according to its website, has a mission to “advance and encourage youth education, primarily in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We also support projects that strengthen and improve the quality of life in numerous identified communities.”
Even though the money for Robert Stuart will be used for technology equipment, Anderson still plans to have his students do things by hand, such as putting together robots. But technology plays a role, too, including 3D modeling before making a replica of a toy car out of wood.
Beyond the Dart Foundation funding, Anderson received a small grant to allow him to attend a 3D modeling and printing workshop. He said he’d love to get students involved in a design challenge where they’d present their solutions to a board of judges.
Another project at Robert Stuart: preparing to launch a robotics team. The group hasn’t met yet, but Anderson is reviewing applications from students who are interested.
For his STEM elective students, changes are on the horizon, too, with new equipment on the way.
“We are extremely grateful to the Dart Foundation that they would support us at that level,” Anderson said. There are lots of small grants out there, he said, but with Robert Stuart’s needs, “it wouldn’t have happened without the foundation.”