STEM success charges up local students, mentors

Senator among those to laud program's educational benefits

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter




2005-06 pilot year:

• mentors: 7

• mentor businesses: 1

• student internships: 1

• students: 36

2011-12 year:

• mentors: 232

• mentor businesses: 144

• student internships: 100

• students: 1,650

Core beliefs:

  1. More rigorous courses are needed in high school if U.S. students are to be competitive in the global economy.

  2. All students -- not just the privileged -- should have the opportunity to succeed in these rigorous courses.

  3. Mentors can play a significant role in education by helping many more students succeed in challenging courses and also by supporting teachers.

Southwest Washington's efforts connecting students with professionals in science, technology, engineering and math -- collectively known as STEM -- were celebrated Thursday night inside an nLight Corp. warehouse packed with educators, students and professionals volunteering as mentors.

The STEM mentoring nonprofit organization called nConnect was founded in 2005 by Scott Keeney, chief executive officer of nLIGHT, a leading manufacturer of semiconductor lasers.

"My whole life has changed," said Reem Sabha, a Mountain View High School junior who is being mentored by an nConnect volunteer in her Advanced Placement calculus class. "I love calculus now, and I want to be an engineer."

Sen. Patty Murray was there Thursday night, lauding the program's success.

"We have an education deficit in this country," Murray said. "Investing in STEM programs is absolutely critical for our future."

In 2005, Murray attended the nConnect kickoff event at the nLight warehouse. In its pilot program year of 2005-2006, there were seven physicist-mentors from nLight, seven high school physics teachers, 36 students and one intern. In contrast, in 2011-2012, there are 232 mentors, 144 mentor businesses, 100 internships and a total of 1,650 students participating in nConnect's programs.

Murray said she was "stunned by the numbers of people impacted by the nConnect program, which pays great dividends for every dollar invested. What we've heard tonight again and again is one person making a comment and offering help along the way can change the whole trajectory in a person's life," Murray said.

Two students who completed nConnect internships spoke about how the internships impacted their career decisions. Aloren Martin, 19, a freshman at Washington State University Vancouver, completed an nConnect internship at Northwest Bioanalytical Services during her junior year at Heritage High School. She ran tests to discover whether chemicals were working in the right way.

"We found out they weren't," said Martin, who has set her sights on being a chemist, due in part to her internship, which she said "got her excited about chemistry."

She plans to earn her master's degree in chemistry at Yale and her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Oxford in England because "Oxford has the best chemistry program in the northern hemisphere.

Valeriy Gershun, 18, a senior at Evergreen High School, completed a 90-hour internship last year at SEH America.

"It pointed me toward studying to become a mechanical engineer," said Gershun, who plans to attend Clark College and then Portland State University.

Keeney said school districts and businesses from around the country have contacted him to see how they might start similar mentoring programs in their communities.

"I did have a vision this could effect our community and be emulated around the country," said Keeney.

He said the success of nConnect's programs depend on public-private partnerships. "It's a chance for people in business to give back. But they also get the reward of making a difference. That's what keeps us going," Keeney said.

Earlier in the day, Murray hosted a roundtable discussion at Partners in Careers in Vancouver about the benefits available to business owners who hire veterans, and about the challenges veterans face when it comes to finding jobs.

Susan Parrish: 360-735-4515;