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 ISU, United Way, Educate Idaho Network Partner to Invest in Local STEM Program

November 14, 2019

The United Way, ISU Academic Success and Advancement Programs, ISU Computer Science faculty, and the Educate Idaho Network have partnered to garner two key grants from the Idaho STEM Action Center.  These grants have led to the development of a wide-reaching STEM outreach program in Southeast Idaho. The initial grant enabled the purchase of several LEGO MINDSTORM robots and the employment of ISU student mentors to plan and execute outreach activities.  The second grant allowed the program to expand, serving hundreds of primary and secondary students enthusiastic about learning to code. 

United Way, the fiscal agent for the Educate Idaho Network, provided key fiscal support to allow Dr. Cynthia Hill from ISU’s Academic Success and Advancement Programs and Drs. Paul Bodily and John Edwards from ISU’s Computer Science program to focus on helping students from an early age in guiding their academic and career choices toward both a college education and STEM education in particular. 

Dr. Cynthia Hill, associate vice president for Academic Affairs, is ISU’s liaison with United Way for this project. Hill obtained the grants through the Educate Idaho Network and then connected computer science faculty and students with school district leaders in our region.  She led the marketing and outreach efforts at local schools.

Dr. Paul Bodily is an assistant professor of Computer Science in the Informatics and Computer Science Department and head of the Machine Learning and Computational Creativity Lab at Idaho State University. Bodily leads the LEGO robots outreach program that his predecessor, Dr. John Edwards, initiated at ISU in 2016. 

“Our outreach team has developed a way for students to learn programming,” Bodily said. “The team developed a very basic, high-level, human-readable set of Python functions for the robots, which would allow students to quickly and easily see how to use and manipulate existing code in order to evoke sequences of simple actions by the LEGO robots.”

Over the past year, these outreach programs have introduced computer programming to over 1,500 elementary, middle, and high school students. “It is engaging and fun and hopefully increases participation and enrollment in STEM classes,” Bodily said. The long-term goal of this outreach is that it will lead to more STEM graduates who can meet the high demand in STEM industry, especially locally. The demos with LEGO robots are a critical part of preparing future students for ISU’s STEM programs. The benefit of reaching elementary and middle school students and their families is “the students will see value and become enthusiastic about math and science even before they are introduced to programming in high school. Developing these skills can lead to viable and meaningful learning and career choices.”

“The students light up when they see how much the MINDSTORM robots can actually do. They get even more excited when they find out they get to ‘code’ and create dance moves for their robots. The robot dance competition was a fantastic idea.  Every student in the room is completely engaged in learning,” Hill said

ISU students also benefit from this funding partnership through United Way as they are hired to teach programming using the robots at outreach events. It is a way for these students to give back to the community. Many ISU students are from SE Idaho and feel intrinsically motivated to provide a level of STEM experience they wish that they had had as youth. Fiscal support from United Way has enabled roughly two dozen students to participate as mentors in the outreach events, which have been hosted throughout Pocatello, American Falls, Blackfoot, and Idaho Falls. Dr. Bodily’s goal is to get these demos into each High School in the area.

Bodily is also on an advisory committee with United Way called ImPACT East Idaho. The committee consists of stakeholders from local businesses, hospitals, school districts and higher educational institutions focused on improving the “go-on” rate from high school to further/higher education. 

For the month of November the ISU United Way campaign is in full gear! To learn more about the campaign and to download a donation form visit https://www.isu.edu/hr/employee-tools/united-way/


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