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Maine Is Committed to the Future of STEM Education

Bronwyn Flores, Sr. Coordinator, Policy Communications, Consumer Technology Association (CTA)
Maine may lag behind in nationwide internet speeds — at 9,374 kilobytes per second, it ranks below most U.S. states — and the ability to attract investment funds, but the Pine Tree State’s commitment to science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) education is miles ahead of most of the country.
The University of Maine’s home state is a returning “Innovation Adopter” — one of the lowest of the four tiers a state can rank — in the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) 2016 Innovation Scorecard, an annual index that highlights which states best champion smart policies for tech startups. 
We spoke to the UMaine’s Research in STEM Education (RiSE) Program Director Erika Allison and Department of Physics and Astronomy Chair Michael C. Wittmann about what the state’s public education system is doing to nurture entrepreneurial young minds.
What brought you to the University of Maine?

Allison: I moved to Maine from New York City five years ago to join the University of Maine’s Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE) Center. I came here to join a statewide effort to strengthen science education in Maine through a grant the university received from the National Science Foundation ($12.4 million over five years). I was drawn to the opportunity to be part of a project that was creating an infrastructure to support ongoing, sustainable innovation and systemic improvement that could impact an entire state!
Wittmann: The UMaine Department of Physics and Astronomy decided to invest in researching the teaching and learning of physics, which is my specialty. At the same time, the RiSE Center was established and I was lucky enough to join right as I came to Maine. The mix of studying physics, teaching and learning and working across the science and math disciplines was incredibly appealing to me. I was able to help establish something new and study some really interesting questions along the way. It was great!

Why is it important for Maine to invest in STEM education programs?

Allison: STEM education provides the type of learning environment where these sorts of skills develop, and we need to prepare our Maine children to be these kinds of thinkers and leaders as they go on to tackle the biggest problems of their generation in our state and world. A strong foundation STEM education, regardless of whether students go on to become engineers and scientists, is essential for all children to become the kinds of citizens and leaders this state needs.
There is also an obvious workforce consideration here, and Maine needs to invest in strong STEM education to ensure that our students are prepared to be competitive and competent in the STEM workforce. But this is an even bigger issue than just workforce management. STEM education is the foundation for solving the problems of the future.
Wittmann: STEM is a wonderful intersection of disciplines where you can be creative, solve interesting problems, work together to develop ideas, share in creating something new and not be alone when you're struggling with something hard. It's an awesome place to play and have fun.
For me, STEM education goes beyond a discipline that will someday lead to a “good job.” It's about helping to see the world in a different way, by using evidence and asking questions to create something new in partnership with other people.
What’s next for the Maine Physical Sciences Partnership (MainePSP) and Elementary Sciences Partnership (MaineESP), a new program that connects 45 rural schools to UMaine?

Allison: The MainePSP and MaineESP were pilot projects for the bigger vision of a statewide support system for STEM education. We are combining and expanding these projects to create a true statewide infrastructure partnership that supports and strengthens STEM education across Maine.
The RiSE Center's vision is to make Maine a leader in the nation for providing a strong STEM education for each student in every classroom. We plan to accomplish this through regional professional development partnerships that offer ongoing community networks for research, professional development and resources to Maine STEM educators through collaboration with districts, universities, businesses, government and nonprofit partners.
With this level of partnership and collaboration across the state, all Maine STEM teachers will have the support they need to provide high-quality learning experiences to every student in our state.    
Wittmann: We still don't really know what “good teaching” looks like, and we still want to learn. There are many ways the community can sustain itself and continue to grow. Teachers are invested, and at the university, we really want to keep enabling their excellent work. There are few things as fun for me as interacting with teachers, hearing their genuine questions, seeing the world through their professional eyes and laughing along with their stories. Teachers are awesome; I love working with them.
I hope we can continue to work with the professional development community we've built because reaching out to teachers is the best way to reach out to the students. Some of our conversations with teachers are about student reasoning and data gathered from classrooms, which help us develop our collective knowledge of STEM content and then bounce around ideas about how to address what students are struggling with. When professionals with different backgrounds and interests come together and respect each other's ideas and input, something pretty miraculous occurs. I want more of that.
To read more about Maine’s grades and find out where your state ranks, check out the 2016 Innovation Scorecard.