Going Global

by Don Rodriguez

CSOs offer testimonials in the program’s award-winning video.

Good news travels fast — and far.

That’s what organizers of the Arizona-based Chief Science Officers (CSO) program learned when their promotional video was named winner of the Facilitator’s Choice Award in the STEM For All 2017 Video Showcase supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). (The video is at stemforall2017.videohall.com/presentations/907). Separately, the foundation in collaboration with the Institute for Learning Innovation awarded the program a $1.2 million grant to develop, evaluate and support research for the program, says Jeremy Babendure, Arizona SciTech’s executive director.

The CSO program was launched by Arizona SciTech as a way to increase student voice in school and community discussions about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), resulting in an increase of student interest and career awareness. The program is a collaborative initiative of the Arizona Technology Council Foundation and the Arizona Commerce Authority.

With CSO on its radar, NSF made the connection when its counterparts in Kuwait learned of the Arizona program’s focus on students as STEM ambassadors. At this point, Babendure only has had an initial Skype meeting with the Kuwait connection to extend an invitation to get a firsthand look at CSOs in action on their home turf. “How cool it would be to have a cabinet of chief science officers all the way around the planet!” he says.

There may more interest overseas. Viewers of the award-winning video also can be traced to China, Indonesia, Ireland, Kenya, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Singapore and Turkey.

In the meantime, there already is national interest and engagement since launching here only two years ago. There are multiple regions that are wanting to launch their own programs after learning about what is happening in Arizona, Babendure says. “Not wanting,” he says, correcting himself. “They are doing it.”

Michigan and Oregon are examples of locations where CSOs are active. A school district in Tampa Bay has been taking the lead for its program. Regarding community or school involvement, “they can leverage what we already have going on but we’re not promoting this as, ‘Hey, you’re doing something that’s only in Arizona,’” says Babendure. “We’re billing it as a national opportunity.”

Not every group is based on state boundaries. A new region recently brought together CSOs from Tennessee, Indiana and Illinois for a meeting in St. Louis. To help get them on their feet, CSO Vivian, an incoming junior at Hamilton High School, flew there to help lead a session on what the students can expect in their new roles. “Our main point was how to serve as a CSO — collective action that we all get together and work towards — and how to be a STEM ambassador and student voice,” she says.

Vivian admits she “was worried that I wouldn’t be able to really connect with the students” since their backgrounds and interests were tied to the Midwest. But she discovered they really weren’t that different and had the same desire to serve their fellow students. She recalls also being hesitant to get involved in the CSO program last year but saw a larger purpose for making the commitment. “I thought that by being a CSO that I could convince more people to pursue STEM education despite how difficult it may be in the beginning, because I saw how it could change the world in the future.”

This school year she will be among the 340 Arizona students Babendure expects to be involved. That’s about two-and-a-half times the number when the program began. The addition of CSOs outside the state should take to the total to just under 500 nationwide, he says.

Helping the cause are the supporters, whether it has been through funding or in-kind donations. For example, Dow Chemical has stepped forward to help the Michigan CSOs. But such backing goes beyond cultivating the next STEM workforce. More importantly, it’s about the impact the students make on society today, Babendure says. While STEM may be a new term, the general message of the importance of science-related careers has been around for decades. “But you put a kid on stage and it’s like, ‘Wow’ People respond,” he says.

The nationwide expansion is just starting. But it will take more funding. Babendure says ideally the program needs $3 million so it can expand to 50 regions. The money would provide seed funding for new programs along with putting in place systems such as site visits by coordinators to provide guidance and a buildout of the website to support the national groups.

Meanwhile, the CSOs will continue spreading the word on STEM as they lay the foundation for their own careers. “I heard if you like your job then you don’t have to work a day,” says future physician Vivian.

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