Eastern Idaho high school students got to skip class Friday to build electroscopes, learn about cybersecurity and investigate “nuclear crime scenes” at Idaho National Laboratory.
“Little did they know they probably learned as much today, or more, as they would have sitting in their classrooms,” said Anne Seifert, INL K-12 STEM manager.
INL hosted the event as part of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2014. The initiative focuses on engaging people of color and disadvantaged students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
About 60 high school students ranging from the Magic Valley up to the Montana border were bused to INL’s Idaho Falls facilities for a tour and to hear presentations from staff and guest mentors.
“Our goal is to reach out into our rural and remote communities, and really try to attract students to STEM fields,” Seifert said. “We have an aging workforce, and gaps in our talent pipeline. So we need a younger workforce, and a more diverse workforce, that’s innovative and creative.”
Part of that sought-after workforce includes mechanical, electrical, power and even fire engineers, along with physicists and chemists.
Representatives from some of those professions were introduced to students as they cycled through different workshops that demonstrated the various areas of research at INL, including clean energy, wireless Internet systems and nuclear forensics.
For some of the students, it was an opportunity to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and see how it fits into a practical lab environment.
“Education in the classroom is very focused on content, and in the workplace we really focus on context,” said Seifert, a former teacher. “So field trips or opportunities at the lab bring together content and put it in context, so students can better see themselves in the field applying that application.”
Students also viewed presentations by professionals of color within the STEM fields, including scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy and INL.
“They talked about some of the adversity that they had faced in their lives, and how they found opportunity,” Seifert said. “They gave the students ideas on how to continue even though they may face trying times, and they drove home the idea of following your passion.”
Edgar Herrera-Vega, 17, was one of the students touring the laboratories. A senior at Idaho Falls High School, he’d like to attend Utah State University after he graduates, and then eventually become a mechanical engineer.
“As I grew up, I was exposed to more science, and as that happened I fell in love with it. Math and science are applicable in almost every single case — they’re the study of life,” Herrera-Vega said.
His parents emigrated from Mexico and received little education.
“So growing up, I had to work extra hard to teach myself the material, or know where I was lacking so I could come to school the next day and get it cleared up,” Herrera-Vega said.
For Herrera-Vega, the tour was an opportunity to see people like himself succeeding in the STEM fields.
“Some of the adversity I’ve had to face, it’s nice to see that other people have had the same, and that they’ve struggled just as much as I have, or more, and were able to overcome,” Herrera-Vega said. “It’s challenging to say the least, but if other people can overcome it, and if I’ve made it this far, then I’m confident hard work can overcome anything.”
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.