Tech education growing in the Gorge

December 7, 2011

Amidst an audience of geeky-aficionados, the Trout Lake School District robotics team deftly lifted a red triangular inner tube onto the uppermost rung of the simulation ladder - and all without using their hands.

The robotics team, winners at last year's regional First! Robotics League challenge at OMSI, were just one of the presenting groups at the Gorge Technology Alliance meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 29.

What made their presentation special amongst the panel of presenters discussing technology-education connections in the Gorge was the live demonstration of their hand-built, winning robot, in action moving nimbly across the wooden floors of Springhouse Cellar while following wireless commands.

And, what made that demonstration possible, ultimately, were the members of local technology companies sitting in the room - most of whom had made investments of staff time and money into education programs in technology, math, science and engineering in our region.

The GTA evening featured a panel of employers sharing how some businesses are connecting with K-12 educational systems in the Gorge.

Representatives from Insitu-Boeing, Google, Cloud Cap Technologies-Goodrich, Project Invent and others discussed existing programs that offer opportunities for community-based tech-education, which simultaneously improve their businesses.

With options for internships, school grants, mentorships, events and innovative new programs, GTA members are engaging with the region's emerging workforce as a way of "giving back" to the community while developing incoming talent.

Dave Karlson, operation manager at Google in The Dalles, summarized their efforts to develop a robotics program in every school within the five counties of the Gorge.

"We've donated about $180,000 over the last few years to make that a reality," said Karlson. (See sidebar story for more details.)

Patrick Bettale, electrical engineer at Cloud Cap, has provided hands-on, volunteer mentorship to the Trout Lake robotics team.

"They did most of the work," said Bettale, "I just guided and oversaw it." Bettale was there to discuss the impact local tech-savvy employees can have on young minds.

"Even a little time makes a big difference. I volunteer once a week and a few hours on Saturdays," said Battale about his work during the robotics season.

Trout Lake team coach, Sally Wells noted that the entire community watched the evolution of the robot. "It was a slam dunk at homecoming."

Holly Higdon-Wood, executive director of "Project Invent," spoke about the revelation leading to the founding of her new nonprofit which promotes innovative teaching in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), with a twist.

"It is too late to introduce advanced STEM programs when kids are juniors in high school. We want to encourage innovation and spark creativity at a younger age. We also want to connect STEM programs with writing and research skills."

Project Invent is working with middle schools and hopes to bring opportunities to third and fourth-grade students as well.

With this year's robotics season just beginning, events and programs starting at the elementary school level are already under way.

This weekend, the Lego-League elementary program will hold part two of its second annual competition in Hood River. Last year 14 teams competed. This year there are 46. (See sidebar for contest details.)

The unified approach between schools and tech-businesses to make STEM programs user friendly is clearly catching on.

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