SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen said providing Maine students with more engaging math and science programs is a pathway to a stronger economy Tuesday during the official unveiling of The Reach Center, a new organization aiming to do just that.
Allen headlined a media event at Southern Maine Community College’s Sustainability and Energy Alternatives Center in South Portland to mark the launch of The Reach Center. The new group comes from a partnership between the Augusta-based Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance and the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, and is funded by a $3.2 million gift by an anonymous donor.
Allen touted the new organization, which hopes to provide individual student mentorships and a central clearinghouse for innovative math and science programs around the state, as poised to play a key role in Maine’s economic future.
The co-founder of the House Oceans Caucus and member of the boards of both the Marine Conservation Institute and Ocean Conservancy said it’s important to make science and math relevant to kids. Allen said more job opportunities are available in science and mathematical fields, and salaries tend to be higher.
Tom Keller, one of three co-directors of The Reach Center and senior program officer of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Science Education, said more specific applications of math and science make the topics more interesting to kids and, in turn, make the kids grow up to be more employable.
“We don’t just do physics any more in the real world,” he said. “We do biophysics or geophysics.”
Organizers of The Reach Center are just beginning to embark on a months-long effort to forge partnerships with educators, organizations, researchers and businesses around the state, but said Tuesday was a strong kick-off. Prior to the media event, Reach Center stakeholders invited potential industry partners to a two-hour conference, at which Allen joined Alan Lishness of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Laurie Lachance of the Maine Development Foundation and Falmouth High School students Muna El-Taha and Shreyas Joshi to talk about the potential benefits of enhanced math and science programs for students.
By next spring, Reach Center co-director Jerry Pieh said, the group hopes to have some early programs in place to connect interested math and science students with new research or experimenting opportunities, with perhaps an immersive summer camp offering in the following months.
He said the organization will seek business partners who can help provide financial aid for students who can’t afford out-of-school science camps, competitions and clubs. Pieh acknowledged that, in its current form, The Reach Center is difficult to define, but he said it’s important for the group to make a high-profile arrival onto the math and science education scene in order to help attract the attention of companies, educators and research institutes looking to invest in the subjects.
Fellow co-director Jan Mokros added Tuesday that The Reach Center will develop its strategies in accordance to the needs of the students it serves, making details hard to pin down until kids are more officially brought into the fold in the coming months. Reach Center leaders envision the creation of an online community of students who can support each other’s interests and can periodically get together for in-person events or with adult scientist mentors lined up through the center.
“We’re going to start with the kids, rather than schools,” Mokros said. “Once we find the kids, we’ll follow them back to their schools. We’ll stay with the kids wherever they go.”