Byte Fest kicks off new Mid-Columbia STEM Education Collaboratory

Tri-City HeraldMay 13, 2014 

Students scrambling to finish their work in a computer lab Tuesday at Washington State University Tri-Cities weren't taking a final -- they were trying to beat the clock.

More than 20 high school students from throughout the Tri-Cities took part in the first Byte Fest, a coding competition centered around recreating computer versions of simple games.

A student group from Tri-Tech Skills Center managed to work on several problems, finishing one on tick-tack-toe and partially developing coding for Yahtzee!

"This has been pretty intense and stressful," said junior Phillip Todd, 17, a member of the group.

The Byte Fest event kicked off the new Mid-Columbia STEM Education Collaboratory, a consortium aimed at promoting science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education in the region.

Organizers said the new group will broaden outreach to students and the community about STEM education and careers. Perhaps most importantly, they hope to better illustrate what students can do with what they are learning in the classroom.

"We're interested in growing major leaguers," said Jeff Estes, STEM education director at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "Not everyone will make it to the major leagues, but they will develop good skills and find a place along the way."

The collaboratory -- the word is a portmanteau of "collaboration" and "laboratory" -- grew out of meetings that started more than a year ago between organizations, businesses and institutions, said Estes, who also sits on the Washington State Board of Education. While there are several groups advocating for STEM in the region, they've all previously targeted specific groups or initiatives.

"We raised the question if there were things we could do together that we couldn't do alone," Estes said.

Those meetings led PNNL to form the collaboratory with Delta High, which serves about 400 students in the Tri-Cities, as well as Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform, or LASER, and the Yakima Valley-Tri-Cities Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement, or MESA, Center. MESA is focused on bringing more minorities and women into STEM careers while LASER advocates on behalf of STEM education.

Using an initial $50,000 grant from Battelle, which operates PNNL, the group is organizing public outreach events such as a recent "Family Engineering Night" at Columbia Basin College, similar to family math and technology events aimed at improving basic skills used at home. The collaboratory also has started producing short videos featuring local STEM professionals talking about how they go about their jobs.

"Exposing students to those jobs is important," said Delta High teacher Emily Blankingship. "It's allowing students to see their STEM future."

Tuesday's Byte Fest was tied into a computer science initiative, but also provided something closer to real-world programming -- problems that have to be solved on a deadline and not necessarily for ourselves.

"Technology is all around us and we're good at being consumers," said Eric Bell, a research computer scientist at PNNL helping out with the competition. "But somebody has to produce what you're consuming."

Estes said the group has more lined up, including developing tools for teachers and students to teach and reinforce STEM-centered lessons. Some possible options range from a board game to a mobile-based device but those projects are still in development, he said.

The collaboratory's members said their initial efforts are showing promise. They are starting small -- 20 students at Byte Fest, no more than 140 people at the Family Engineering event -- but people are interested, enjoying themselves and learning, organizers said.

And while the coding competition was intense, Phillip said it didn't do anything to sway him from a future in the field, possibly designing games or working as a freelance programmer.

"I'll just get better with more and more practice," he said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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