Taking the Lead

by Don Rodriguez

Members of the Chief Science Officers program during the STEM-ONstration Showcase of their Training Institute in July

Becoming a leader. Many people spend an entire career looking for ways to accomplish this. Middle and high school students are getting the chance now, thanks to a program based in Arizona.

When the Chief Science Officers (CSO) program was launched by Arizona SciTech a few years ago, it was viewed as a way to increase student voice in school and community discussions about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Beyond that, students have been honing their skills as leaders, says Jeremy Babendure, Arizona SciTech’s executive director. Arizona SciTech is a program of the Arizona Technology Council Foundation, where Babendure also serves as executive director.

Sessions for the CSOs Training Institute were held July and September to offer training in communication, such as blog writing and on-camera appearances, and strategic planning, such as teambuilding, Babendure says. This year, a record number of CSOs were trained. The current CSO class counts 320 members based in Arizona and another 100 in Oregon, Michigan, Tennessee and Missouri, he says.

“What’s been awesome is now being in our third season, we have a lot more second-year [CSOs]. And even cooler, we have third years,” Babendure says. “So they have taken leadership roles to now help run some of the sessions and to assist in the sessions.”

The July sessions were offered at Grand Canyon University, with a four-day schedule for returning CSOs, three days for new high school participants and two days for the new middle school students. Babendure says for many it may have been the first time they set foot on a college campus. “Having the chance to also stay overnight [in the dorms] was so magical for them,” he says.

One of the sessions gave students guidance on collective action experience while another targeted leaderships. There also was mentoring through the SciTech Jedis, who are working professionals from Honeywell, Orbital ATK and Intel.

Training for CSOs will be ongoing, Babendure says, especially with so many students continuing their roles beyond a single school year. “We’ve been working on a plan for the different levels CSOs can be and continue that level of leadership with them each year that they are with the program,” he says.

Another opportunity for the CSOs to grow came when two participated in a meeting of the STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative in Kansas City, Mo., in October. Representatives of 56 regional stem ecosystems — two from Arizona — met to develop ways to create a high-quality local STEM workforce. Babendure says two CSOs from Phoenix-area schools attended to express their perspectives on how STEM impacts them as students. “It was really the first time for many of these adults to interface with a kid that has this ability to enroll, really get them excited about ideas, and see the value and strength of STEM in students,” he says.

CSOs even have had a chance to take things full circle by participating in September’s kickoff conference for the 2018 SciTech Festival held at the Mesa Arts Center. More than 50 sessions brought together collaborators from industry, education, government and the community to share their experiences and talk about their plans for the upcoming season with the theme “Arizona stem ecosystem,” Babendure says. One CSO even stepped up to lead the keynote session by introducing the featured speaker and all the sponsors. “Giving CSOs that opportunity to take their next steps in leadership at the conference was great,” he says.

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