MUSCATINE — The Governor's STEM Advisory Council awarded a grant to Muscatine Community Schools. 

The Council, launched by former Gov. Terry Branstad in 2011, aimed to grow Iowa students' proficiency in STEM subject matter.

Executive Director Jeff Weld said that this was an important next step for growing the state's opportunity.

"It was launched because the talent pipeline from K-12 and post-secondary to our industries and businesses in the state is weaker than it needs to be," Weld said. "Employers of Iowa — especially those in high demand fields like engineering and manufacturing and IT and finance — are really scrambling to find talent here in the state. And it's hard to import to here in Iowa so we have to grow our own."

Though the Council runs several STEM granting programs, Muscatine is receiving funding for its "STEAM into MCC" program, a continuation on the work they began last year with money from a 2016 STEM BEST grant.

This past spring, all six elementary schools and teachers from MCSD and Muscatine Community College partnered to offer an after-school program for fourth and fifth graders. Twenty-eight students participated in the inaugural program -- 15 girls and 13 boys, 16 are minorities. 

For the 2018 grant, Muscatine hopes to double the number of students served and expand the program into West Liberty Elementary School, which has a 54 percent Latino student population. 

The grant money will go toward funding a portion of a project director, stipends for six teachers and MCC faculty, as well as transportation to business partners.

The STEM BEST program offers $25,000 grants to schools to help connect classrooms to Iowa's business and industry sector. 

"Schools take these relatively small $25,000 grants," Weld said. "Funding that may be a lot to you and me, but for a district, it’s not a whole lot of money. But what I love about that is the effect it is having for comparative pocket-change, this is transforming schools across our state. 

Grant recipients have three options for using the money, Weld said. The funds can be spent on paying for time with business professionals to help build lesson plans that foreground real world business problems in math and science classes. They can also be spent on reconfiguring learning spaces at the schools. Weld said he would like to see schools begin to look more like the office environments students can expect outside of school. The final stipulated usage is for traveling to school districts to learn about their innovations in education.

"People are beginning to come to Muscatine and I think that we are going to really get to watch that program blossom," Weld said. "Hopefully, there is going to be series of schools coming over to Muscatine to see how the pros are doing it."

Weld, who wants to see schools become more business and industry focused, hopes that the work that districts like MCSD lead the way for the rest of the state.

"The school environment has developed to be separate from the world of industry. The world of industry and employment has changed and there is a disconnect between what is happening in schools and what is happening in the workplace," Weld said. "I think what Muscatine has got there is a glimpse at the future of education."

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