$3.2 million initiative will try to attract Maine students to math, science

Posted Nov. 23, 2011, at 5:22 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 24, 2011, at 8:43 a.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Maine math and science advocates are preparing to unveil a $3.2 million initiative to stoke interest in these subjects among middle and high school students.

The Reach Center, a collaboration between the Augusta-based Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance and the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, is due to be introduced Tuesday, Nov. 29, in an event at Southern Maine Community College’s South Portland campus. The press conference will feature a keynote address by former Democratic Rep. Tom Allen.

Jan Mokros, executive director of the alliance, said the center is being funded over 10 years by a $3.2 million anonymous donation which the group hopes to use to leverage other revenue streams such as National Science Foundation grants. The new Reach Center will spend the next several months seeking to forge partnerships with research institutions, educators, schools and companies around the state in hopes of becoming a primary Maine hub for math- and science-related programs for middle and high school students.

“The problem we’re addressing is that most students lose interest in these areas,” Mokros told the Bangor Daily News. “About 80 percent, by the time they graduate high school, never want to take a math or science class again, so we’re losing our talent pool. Our goal is to capture them early, get them involved in science and math that’s rigorous and relevant to their own lives, and keep them interested, so by the time they’re finished [high school] they’ll want more.”

As it stands, Mokros said, few students leave the 12th grade wanting more.

“Right now, out of 6,000 students who graduate from Maine colleges every year, about 65 of them are math majors,” she said. “And yet, if you have a math degree, there are all kinds of careers open to you. Unum is begging for people with math backgrounds.”

The creation of The Reach Center is the latest development in a statewide effort to spice up science, technology, engineering and mathematics — frequently lumped under the acronym STEM — education.

Mokros said this latest effort is plotted to be wide ranging, lining up in-person mentorships, online classes in specialized subjects such as marine biology and robotics, and summer and after-school programs. She said The Reach Center plans to serve as an information center with links to other STEM programs around the state, helping to connect interested students with projects and events best suited for them.

“We’ve got all kinds of random acts of STEM, and we want to make sure we build on what’s out there and maybe provide some of the connective tissue between them,” she said.

Jerry Pieh, chairman of the board of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, said organizers of The Reach Center still are ironing out how best to attain its goals.

“I hope [The Reach Center] plugs in as a coordinating element, as a partner to other organizations,” he said. “It isn’t designed to create new curriculum, it’s designed more to connect students, parents and teachers with each other and with programs. … There are a number of ways to do this, and we’re just beginning to zero in on how to move down this track.”

Mokros said the students The Reach Center aims to, well, reach are not necessarily the ones scoring highest on math and science tests.

“A lot of students are falling through the cracks,” Mokros said. “They may not be achieving top grades in science, but they’re building elaborate Lego structures in their basements. Very few of them take a standard pathway and know they want to be a scientist when they’re 12 and pursue that singlemindedly. Engineering is very rarely taught in middle schools or even in Maine high schools, for instance, but a lot of our kids enjoy tinkering.”

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