Conservation Districts Collectively Leverage Resources to Deliver STEM Academy Program to Local Students in Washington’s Tri-Cities Area

Evolving organically from long-standing local partnerships, the Foundation for Water & Energy Education Ag. & Sustainable Energy Career Academy Tri-Cities was designed to connect students to hands-on, professional-led, career-focused experiences in the energy, agriculture, and conservation industries. The Benton Conservation District Board has long recognized the importance of river services to the local community’s quality of life, maintaining and growing their commitments to water quality and quantity as priority resource concerns. Stemming from an ongoing series of partnerships with local schools and public utility districts (PUD), a program evolved to educate students about salmon habitat, migration, dams, and fish passage. Through the collaborative efforts of Benton CD and the Benton PUD, the decision to expand upon their existing Salmon in the Classroom program and co-host a STEM Career Academy was naturally supported by surrounding partners. Key support was provided by the upstream Chelan PUD who hosts a STEM Academy of their own at Rocky Reach Dam, as well as long-standing Tri-Cities neighbors Franklin Conservation District and Walla Walla Conservation District.

The resulting program concept leveraged funding and staff support through collaboration with and sponsorship by several local industry partners, namely the Benton PUD and the Washington Grain Commission. Support funding was secured through a Friends of NACD Grant and a Bonneville Science & Energy Grant, while additional resources were furnished by Energy North West, City of Richland Energy Services, Franklin PUD, Washington State University Tri-Cities, Grant PUD, Educational Services District 123, and the Foundation for Water & Energy Education. In total, 16 students from 11 high schools representing 6 school districts participated, in addition to students from homeschool programs and private schools. Seven Scholarships were awarded through generous industry partner sponsorships.

From building small-scale water-power turbines, to touring fish passage and powerhouse facilities at operating dams, to visiting barge mooring and grain storage facilities in and adjacent to local waterways, students experienced a wide variety of opportunity to learn about the systems that numerous Tri-Cities industries rely on. The 3 day event in June was infused with a diversity of experiments and experiences – like touring a nuclear power plant control room simulator and cooling towers, safety equipment/hot dog roasting demonstrations by Benton PUD linemen, building/racing solar powered cars, drone building/piloting, and hearing from a panel of scientists and interns from the Pacific NW National Laboratory. Needless to say, the event was a huge success in its very first year! When asked about the recipe for such success, Benton CD Outreach Coordinator & Fisheries Biologist Rachel Little r  ecommends sharing leadership resources, working through existing/established networks while expanding into new ones, prioritizing the time and effort to market a new idea/program, and using templates for success when and where applicable.

Photos provided by Rachel Little – Outreach Coordinator/Fisheries Biologist for Benton Conservation District.

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