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STEM programs in Shawnee Mission get $100,000 boost

Updated: 2014-01-22T00:18:18Z

By SANGEETA SHASTRY

Special to The Star

The Shawnee Mission School District announced a $100,000 donation Tuesday to support its science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — programs.

Shawnee Mission school board member Craig Denny and his wife, Terry, both involved with the district for years, made the donation to the Shawnee Mission Education Foundation, which works to secure private support for the district’s schools.

“We think this will have a good impact on what our students today and in the future have the opportunity to learn,” said Craig Denny, who is an engineer by profession and served as president of the board four times and as vice president twice. He graduated from Iowa State University of Science and Technology with his wife, who worked in the district for 16 years before retiring in 2008.

The Denny Family Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Fund is intended as a long-term endowment that can be both invested and spent, said Linda Roser, the foundation’s executive director. It can be used for curriculum development, professional development, equipment purchases and to support student participation in specialized research.

“It is intended to propel science and technology education and math education forward into the future,” Roser said. The contribution “will go on and affect generations of students in our school.”

Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson underscored the benefit the donation will have on developing the district’s programs as STEM fields advance.

“The generosity of donors like the Denny family through the Shawnee Mission Education Foundation is vital to ensuring our students will be competitive on every level,” he said. “If we are going to remain competitive and continue to be innovative, expanding these subjects must be a priority.”

Brenda Bott, coordinator and teacher for Shawnee Mission School District’s Biotechnology Signature Program, said she was “stunned” when she heard the size of the donation.

“When a family steps up and says that for generations they want to be able to make a difference — no one’s going to believe this, but I’m speechless,” she said. “That’s absolutely amazing.”

The announcement was made in Bott’s laboratory at Shawnee Mission West High School, where students were working with bright blue copper sulfate solutions. They milled around busily wearing lab goggles and white lab coats, just like their teacher — though Bott said she acts as more of a lab manager.

“We are well equipped,” she said, noting that the district has been supportive of the biotechnology program. “But there are always some things that we need to go beyond what we have in the laboratory, especially when students start doing independent research. The projects are usually very specific. We have some old and outdated equipment that needs to be updated.”

The seven-year-old Biotechnology Signature Program aims to train high schoolers in a lab setting, Bott said. The district saw a need for lab technicians and lab skills in the metro area, which Bott called a “hotbed” of biotechnology for agribusiness.

The goal isn’t just to prepare students for advanced degrees in STEM fields. Sixty percent of those employed in the biotechnology business in the metro area have only a high school diploma, Bott said. The district’s program readies students to enter the work force in that field after graduation.

Introducing STEM topics early is key, particularly for recruiting more women and minorities to STEM careers, Craig Denny said.

“By the time (students) become senior(s) in high school, if they haven’t been taking science courses, it’s a little late to start,” he said.

Denny said that even though he’s seen an emphasis on STEM education throughout his life, the more recent push to promote science, technology, engineering and math in classrooms is a step in the right direction.

“I’m happy that there’s an increased recognition of the importance of the science education,” he said. “I think there’s a little bit more of a focus now because of the importance we put on the scientific and engineering backgrounds. We are trying to promote students to look at that as a career.”

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