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How Arizona brings STEM learning opportunities like Chief Science Officers to rural communities

AZ Inno

Mining runs deep in Roselyn Dorrell’s family. Members of five generations have worked for Freeport‐McMoRan, operator of the largest copper mine in North America in Morenci, Arizona.*

But the Clifton teenager, who owned her first toolbox at age 5, feels called to do something different, whatever that “something” is.

“I wasn’t sure where I could go,” said Dorrell, 17. “There weren’t a lot of options for me, and I didn’t have a lot of examples of other careers, growing up in a rural town.”

All that changed 18 months ago when she became a Chief Science Officer (CSO) at Morenci High School and attended a national convention of scientists.

“It was the most incredible experience, seeing people happy in their careers, pursuing what they love, and doing great things for society,” she said.

Launched in 2015, the Arizona-grown CSO program is run by the SciTech Institute, an initiative of the Arizona Commerce Authority and Arizona Technology Council.

The program enhances and promotes the value and importance of STEM education, providing a blueprint for empowering sixth- through 12th-graders to be STEM ambassadors for their communities. Roughly 600 students in 12 states as well as more than 400 students in countries such as Kenya, Kuwait, and Mexico make up the program.

In Arizona, CSOs help organize and run statewide activities for the annual SciTech Festival, a grassroots STEM collaboration of events and activities for all Arizonans. The festival is the country’s third-largest science celebration, with 900-plus partnering organizations hosting 3,000 events in more than 80 Arizona cities, towns, and communities since 2012.*

“We build the festivals as anchors to help communities self-realize what their assets are,” said Jeremy Babendure, Ph.D., the SciTech Institute’s executive director, referring to the recent Buckeye Air Fair.

“We are collaborating with them to be intentional about bringing STEM and STEM opportunities to the Air Fair, so that you’re reaching everyone.”

Now a festival signature event, the Buckeye show has evolved to help build workforce and economic development in a vast region west of Phoenix.

The work of the SciTech Institute provides an outsized impact for rural communities, which often have fewer STEM resources than larger metro areas.

“In small communities, technology seems so far away,” said Mayor Mila Besich of Superior, a community of 2,600 in northern Pinal County. “But this also is a community that is much more connected to the global community and STEM through its mines.”

Superior has five CSOs who learned about AI during a town tourism project, an active youth council, and partnerships with nonprofits focusing on careers in aviation and computer repairs.

“The beauty of the SciTech Festival is that it’s where your love of STEM can amplify into a career,” Besich said. “It’s not just sitting and learning math, physics, or biology from a book.”

The festival makes STEM accessible to all Arizona students, said Ty White, the Arizona Educational Foundation’s 2023 Teacher of the Year. A longtime chemistry teacher at Willcox High in southeastern Arizona, White organizes the Southwest Space Settlement Design Competition at UArizona’s Biosphere 2 in Oracle.

“These activities really make kids think about what can be. They come back to me at the end, and say, ‘You know what? This could be me,’” White said.

The SciTech Institute supported the space competition by recruiting aerospace industry participants and mentors. The students’ challenge was to build a habitat that could be an international banking center for a translunar economy.

For Dorrell, still a high school junior, the SciTech Institute opened pathways she never thought possible. She will receive a general associate’s degree from Eastern Arizona College in May and hopes to start a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering as a senior next year.

“I have always loved science, but I hadn’t seen science as a viable career option,” she said. “But seeing it now has given me so much confidence that I can do what I love in my life.”

*According to Arizona Commerce Authority

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