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STEAM Ahead: Manchester Tech Companies Throw Coal In The Local K-12 Engine

Ryan Lessard

  About 60 9th grade students in Manchester High School West are participating in a new science-focused magnet program called STEAM Ahead, this year. The partnership between the school district and several local tech companies also involves state colleges. It aims to boost the local workforce and retain youth and talent.

It’s morning in biology teacher Christine Aspinwall’s class. The students are scrambling to fill beakers with pureed food.

Their task is to test the multi-colored goop with reagents to find nutrients. You might find similar experiments going on in three other classrooms at West. Five teachers there are overseeing the STEAM Ahead projects. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. And students come from all over the city.

The idea is to provide as many as seventy-five students exposure to technology and science with an emphasis on hands-on learning.

Students get to tour tech companies, get access to a career coordinator—and the program would also pay for special classes that would allow them earn college credits during high school.

STEAM Ahead has been in the works for about two years. And it all got started in a Manchester bar called Cotton.

“I came down here with another one of our colleagues, Gray Chynoweth, and we were coming down, just kind of kibitzing after a busy, hard day at work.”

Jeremy Hitchcock is the CEO of Dyn, an internet company based in Manchester.

“And we ran into a local guy, Nick Soggu, and we were talking about hiring and kind of comparing applicants of who was hiring for what job. And we said, ‘ugh, there just isn’t enough people for it.’ And we were talking about intern fairs and how that doesn’t do it…”

Hitchcock and Soggu, who is the President of Silvertech, a digital marketing firm, decided that they needed to help train future workers through the school system.

That decision came at a low point for Manchester schools. Teachers were being laid off. Parents were critical of large class sizes, ratty textbooks and outdated computers. Hooksett even pulled out of its contract to send its kids to Manchester high schools.

Meanwhile, Bob Baines, who was West High principal before he served three terms as Manchester mayor, approached the city’s current leader, Mayor Ted Gatsas.

“I told him that I was growing concerned about the situation with public education and wondered if there was some opportunities for the two of us to work together on school reform, and that I had some ideas and he said ‘absolutely,’ and we began to talk about just what that would be like.”

Soon after, Hitchcock put Baines on the Dyn payroll, and asked him to create a STEM-focused pilot program.

“He was my high school principal,” says Hitchcock, “so even now I still think of him as Principal Baines.”

Dyn is putting in about $150,000 per year for the first four years of the program. Most is going to pay Baines to oversee STEAM Ahead. Manchester’s school board decided to back the plan last fall.

More than 20 companies are also on board, providing Google laptops for each student and raising most of the $400,000 to renovate classrooms.

Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR
Foods like hotdogs, pop-tarts, oreos and tomatoes were pureed for students to test in Christine Aspinwall's biology class.

Lucy Weathers, who is STEAM Ahead’s career coordinator, says, so far, participating students are happy.

“They’re loving the project-based and hands-on sorts of things. Teachers are teaching in so many different ways that kids are getting the information the way that they learn and they’re starting to see how they learn.”

Weathers’ salary is paid by AmeriCorps and Granite State College. The Community College and University Systems are also helping to create curricula for the program. And Weathers hopes to begin building useful connections there.

“Hasn’t been easy but I know that the beginning of school year can be very hectic, so I’m still trying to get in there.”

And the college transition is important for employers. They won’t be hiring straight out of high school. Michael Teitelbaum is a researcher at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

“The tightest labor markets, the hardest ones for many employers to recruit, is at the kind of intermediate level; people who are proficient at doing the technologies, and installing the technologies and managing the systems.”

Those are the kinds of jobs Dyn and Silvertech are trying to fill.

Edie Fraser with the group STEM-Connector says what’s going on in Manchester is part of a growing trend.

“We’re seeing businesses step up. They’re developing STEM councils, STEM leadership, and most of them have goals about the future of the workforce.”

Dyn plans to keep STEAM Ahead running for at least four years. Inventor Dean Kamen is also getting involved with STEAM Ahead at the fourth-grade level. The thinking there is it’s never too early to get kids interested in technology.

Back at West High, meanwhile, STEAM Ahead students, a bit closer to their first job, are getting their hands dirty with science. And many in the tech industry hope that somewhere along the way a few of them will stick with it.

Before becoming a reporter for NHPR, Ryan devoted many months interning with The Exchange team, helping to produce their daily talk show. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire in Manchester with a major in Politics and Society and a minor in Communication Arts. While in school, he also interned for a DC-based think tank. His interests include science fiction and international relations. Ryan is a life-long Manchester resident.

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