The races between the robotic cars in the hallways of Skyview Middle School on Thursday afternoon weren’t the cheering kind — after all, the kids racing the cars knew more or less exactly what they’d do. They’d built and programmed the cars, after all.
The races did, however, elicit a groan or two when a car started to tilt to one side or the other or ran too far down the hallway. There was still some tweaking to do.
Shelli Church, who teaches robotics at Skyview, said she has a class of 26 students. They’re engaged and interested in the topic, part of the science, technology, engineering and math curriculum at the middle school, and a branch of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s larger career and technical education opportunities.
On Thursday, oil refining company Andeavor presented the school district with a $175,000 grant to further programs like Church’s robotics class.
“For us, we’re always very supportive of science, technology, engineering and math programs, because you see this need for it to be successful here on the Kenai Peninsula, to be successful in Alaska,” said Cameron Hunt, who manages Andeavor’s refinery in Nikiski. “We have a lot of industry here, and that relies on people coming up through our schools to be able to contribute to that.”
The school district worked with Andeavor on the grant, which will go to a one-time materials purchase and support for programs.
The grant will be split among three major programs: $75,000 to purchase laptops and carts for “Project Lead the Way” classes like Church’s class, $75,000 to support the Upstream Middle School Academies and $25,000 to for the SkillsUSA program within the Career and Technical Education program.
The Project Lead the Way classes, part of a national program, seek to engage K-12 students with STEM curriculum to develop and apply in-demand, transportable skills through problemsolving. The Career and Technical Education program overall provides real-world skills for students, like the construction or welding classes at the high school level in the district.
The Upstream Academies are relatively new. Begun through Title VI, the federal support for Alaska Native, Native American students in public education, the Upstream program provides week-long camps focused on different skills, including programming drones, biomedical engineering, life skills and — in the coming year — marine biology, said Title VI teacher Rachel Pioch, who coordinates the academies.
The Andeavor grant will allow the district to expand the availability to all students, she said.
“That’s what’s really exciting about this,” she said.
Though the higher-level career and technical education classes in the district and at Kenai Peninsula College and the Alaska Vocational Techincal Center in Seward are more specific to skills, the middle school programs tend to be broader, said Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Sean Dusek.
“In middle school, we try to do as much exploratory (work) with the students as possible,” he said.
Hunt said the refinery looks to hire locally as much as possible, though some employees do come from elsewhere. Beyond just the practical skills, the students are learning the type of problemsolving that is useful in jobs available at facilities like Andeavor, he said.
“Wen you’re looking at coding, you’re looking at electronics, those are directly relatable to what we do every day at the refinery,” he said. “…Those overall just problemsolving skills, those will serve you well whatever industry you get into.”