Hands-on learning helps students meet the needs of Washington’s tech-based industries

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In Washington state, the foundation of our economy rests firmly on the subjects of science, technology, engineering and math. Those areas, known as STEM fields, are the core for many important employers – including Boeing, Microsoft and the health care sector.

Despite the significance of STEM fields across the state, we’re falling short of demand when it comes to producing well-trained workers in those areas. In fact, our state is among the lowest in terms of how much time our K-12 schools devote to science instruction, and is ranked nearly last in the nation when it comes to degree production in science and engineering.

Among the educators rising to meet that challenge is Eric Lagally, a faculty member at WGU Washington.

As a Program Manager for the College of Information Technology, Lagally spends most of his time working with WGU faculty mentors helping students be successful in their degree programs. But outside of his day job, Eric volunteers his time fostering passion for STEM among young learners.

“Many WGU students enter with a fear of science even though they are actually great at it,” says Lagally. “If I can help students realize this at an early age, they will be better prepared for not only WGU’s rigorous curriculum but other challenges in their lives as well. I also find that volunteering helps me learn independent of time and place, as I interact with people whose experience differs from my own.

Lagally works with the Washington Alliance for Better Schools, an organization that leverages resources, talent and intellectual capital to help over a quarter-million young students graduate ready to succeed in their careers and in college.

“WABS is unique both in that it focuses on combining teams of experts from different technical areas to develop new curriculum and in that it combines representatives from 11 school districts from the Puget Sound region to collaborate so that the results are widely applicable in different educational settings” says Lagally. “WABS’ mission is aligned with my own, which is to help people learn science and technical skills from an early age through adulthood.”

Lagally recently participated in WABS’ Fourth Annual STEM Celebration, during which he demonstrated a lesson plan he developed with a team of five other volunteers. Over the past year, Lagally’s team collaborated to assemble a set of instructional resources to help students understand how heart valves work and to help them develop and test models of artificial heart valves.

“Our unit took the form of a problem-based lab, which is a type of ‘messy’ problem that does not have one correct answer,” Lagally explains. “This means the students must develop engineering design skills as well as evaluation skills to measure their own success. These types of problems are the most common type they will encounter in their later careers.”

Lagally was invited to return for a second year of WABS this past year. This time, he was part of a second group that designed a learning module for high school students involving how to mine asteroids for valuable minerals.  Like the heart valve project, it was problem-based, meaning there was no correct answer and students were asked to evaluate their own success based on a number of criteria.  Lagally also participated in the fifth annual WABS STEM Fellows celebration in early June of this year.

“I felt proud to have been a part of this work. My team and I had a wonderful time working together over the past year, and we were very happy with the results of our efforts. The students who completed the unit demonstrated tremendous engagement with the problem, even staying through lunch and free periods to work on it!”

WGU Washington is an online, competency-based university designed to expand access to higher education for Washington residents.