Business & Economic News

STEM looks for future funding fix

Ryan Hanchett

November 15, 2017

More than a year ago, the Macon County Economic Development Commission was among the first groups to put its stamp of approval on a STEM education program for local schools.

On Thursday, the EDC board heard about the progress of the program as well as some challenges that are facing STEM coordinator Jennifer Love over the next year.

“We are a year and a half into a two-year grant cycle through the Golden Leaf Foundation to support the STEM program,” Love said. “Of course that means that we are six months away from that grant funding running out. My position is not a state funded position and the STEM program is not a state funded program, so it’s going to be up to the county to find a way to pay for the program if it’s going to continue.”

The Golden Leaf Foundation grant was awarded to Macon County prior to the 2016-17 school year to start the STEM program, which teaches students about applied concepts via science, technology, engineering and math.

The $550,000 grant has paid Love’s salary as she has got the STEM program off the ground and has also paid for supplies, staff development and educational events like the school robotics teams and the regional Lego League. With the Golden Leaf grant set to expire at the end of the fiscal year, Love has worked to find additional funds through more than 20 additional grants in amounts ranging from $100 to $43,000.

“We have seven teams in the Lego League from Macon County and 48 teams across Western North Carolina,” Love said. “The cost to operate that league alone is $75,000, and that is split between the counties that have STEM programs. It’s a financial burden to have a successful STEM program in a rural community, but our students need these educational opportunities.”

Love noted that she has reached out to area businesses for potential financial sponsorships and is expanding her net to include regional businesses who partner with local companies.

Macon County EDC chair Johnny Mira-Knippel told the board that his company, TekTone Sound and Signal, has already partnered with the STEM program to support the robotics league through financial donations and mentorship.
“The STEM program is critical to growing our workforce in Macon County,” Mira-Knippel said. “And we realize that it isn’t an instant gratification program. The hope is that the kids you are reaching with STEM now in the fifth and sixth grade will become the employees our businesses need in five, six or seven years.”

EDC member Ken Murphy asked Love about the perception of the STEM program, both in the public and among the students and teachers at area schools.

“All of the students who participate in the program really get into it and they really love it,” Love said. “I have a core group of teachers that have been totally on board from the beginning and they have been great to help get the program going. It took some coaxing to get some of additional teachers involved, but over time they have seen the benefit of the program and they have grown to appreciate it.”

In order to move the STEM program forward, Love noted that Macon County Schools is working to create a business advisory council that will provide advice regarding the direction of the program and future funding options.

Mira-Knippel brought up the idea of the county partnering with Macon County Schools and possibly the Town of Franklin and Town of Highlands to employ a full-time grant writer. Part of that position would be to write grants to continue funding the STEM initiative.

“So much of what Jennifer does is write and manage grants to keep the program going, if we had a person to do those tasks it would allow her to be more involved in the professional development and student-focused side of her job,” Mira-Knippel said. “There are grant funds available and having someone to go after those funds is an investment that I believe would pay off many times over.”

The EDC board unanimously voted to have EDC director Tommy Jenkins arrange a meeting with school officials and county administrators to discuss the feasibility of a shared grant writer.