Iowa schools have a new source of funding to expand or develop a STEM BEST program, through a special appropriation made earlier this year by the Legislature to the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

The Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council recently opened an online application portal to receive bids from schools for the STEM BEST HD (High Demand) grants. Through the competitive bid process, the council will award grants of up to $40,000 each for schools to develop curriculum in one of three high-demand career areas — computer science/information technology, health professions and advanced manufacturing.

“All three of these areas are screaming for talent, and we of course are earnest about being part of the solution,” said Jeff Weld, executive director of the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. Those three areas were identified in a report to the state by consulting company Battelle as the three highest-demand career fields in the state.  

Currently, about 80 STEM BEST (Business Engaging Students and Teachers) programs are operating at schools across the state, Weld said. Fueled by an additional appropriation of $700,000 for the new grant program, the STEM Council anticipates enabling between 20 and 30 additional schools to begin or expand their STEM BEST programs. The new grant program matches $2 in state funding for every $1 of funding provided by the school district.

Since its launch in 2014, more than 8,500 students have participated in a STEM BEST program at their schools. In a recent survey the STEM Advisory Council sent to graduates of past STEM BEST Programs, 70% indicated their participation in the program helped influence their career path, and 65% said it helped them develop an interest in a STEM-related field.

Emily Abbas, who has served on the STEM Council’s board for the past eight years, said the STEM BEST program has been instrumental in building connections between schools and business professionals. As an executive with Bankers Trust in Des Moines, Abbas sees the difficulty that financial institutions are having filling technology-related openings.

“We just have so much good research that shows that when students and teachers participate in our programming such as STEM BEST that it influences [students’] career paths and helps keep them [interested in] important jobs in our state,” she said. “Students that have these connections are so much more likely to keep moving forward in those programs and have the skills they need for our workforce going forward. And I think that that's just an important pillar of the work we've done, and I think that carries through really with this new STEM BEST HD program.”

One teacher who plans to apply for one of the new STEM BEST HD grants is Nathan Van Zante, who was recognized last year as a STEM Teacher of the Year for his work in developing a comprehensive plastics manufacturing technology program as part of his eighth grade science curriculum at Lewis Central Middle School in Council Bluffs.

Van Zante used a STEM BEST grant to launch the plastics molding operation, beginning by developing a machine that melts plastic grocery bags and then molds the plastic into paint trays that the program sold to the school’s art department. He subsequently used STEM funding to purchase a computer numerical control mill to make injection molds so that students could learn about injection molding. Students are also learning how to build and wire machining equipment such as hydraulic shredders, and fixing them when they break down.

“Right now, 15 to 20 students is it [for capacity], so we can’t really even have a class on it yet,” he said. “I don’t know if you know much about middle school, but if you have 15 jobs and 20 students, it’s not going to be a good deal — you’re going to have five kids running around the room. So we’re trying to scale this up. … We’re modeling this after Rocket Manufacturing," a metal manufacturing program developed by Rock Valley High School in Rock Valley, Iowa.

The STEM BEST HD grants can be used for facility upgrades, to purchase industry-grade equipment, and to cover travel needs and the cost of integrating curriculum into existing courses. The application deadline for schools is Jan. 3, 2022. For more information about STEM BEST HD and to apply, visit the STEM BEST HD page on the Iowa STEM website.