Minecraft design contest winners highlight WV STEM education efforts

Fifteen West Virginia elementary school, middle school and high school students were honored Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 for designs of the West Virginia State Capitol building based on the Minecraft fantasy computer game.

Fifteen West Virginia elementary school, middle school and high school students were honored Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 for designs of the West Virginia State Capitol building based on the Minecraft fantasy computer game.

The awards, presented by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, topped off an afternoon showcasing the state's STEM education efforts.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Earlier Wednesday, Tomblin presided over a roundtable discussion with state educators about efforts to integrate STEM learning into West Virginia's curriculum in an effort to boost the state's economy and give state residents greater job opportunities in an increasingly technological world.

"Things have shifted a great deal since I was back in high school," Tomblin said. "They've changed a lot since then."

During his administration, Tomblin has encouraged the incorporation of STEM education in state institutions from elementary school through high school, career and technical centers, community colleges and the state university system. State officials now are introducing STEM learning to the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind and the state prison system.

State Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said more than 48,000 West Virginians are now employed in STEM-related fields, with another 56,000 in medical fields. He said the numbers show the need for students to learn science, technology, engineering and math skills.

Paul Hill, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said efforts in the state college and university system are centered on increasing the number of STEM-related degrees completed in the state, putting more money into research at state colleges and universities and promoting the importance of STEM education to the public at large.

State community colleges are also integrating STEM training into the courses they offer. Joe Afta, an unemployed coal miner, talked about how he took advantage of community college technology training to learn a new trade while he worked at another job. Afta said he is now poised to get a STEM-related job making more than he made as a coal miner.

Kathy D'Antoni, head of the state's career and technical schools, said STEM learning now is the core of what used to be known as vocational education in West Virginia, where students are now organized into "teams" and "companies" that operate just like real-world counterparts.

Students from the state's career and technical schools recently designed and built tiny houses for victims of June flooding in the state.

Finally, Michaela Ford, a Braxton Middle School student and her mother and technology coach, Jamie Ford, talked about how working on robotics competitions brought a non-confident student out of her shell as she worked with other students to design and build robots and a satellite.