University nurtures STEM program, students

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Karl Pomare is a 21-year old from Austin, Texas. At age 10, unable to afford a fancy radio-controlled car like his friend’s, Karl built his own with Popsicle sticks, scrap wires, electric motors, switches, and a soldering gun.

He was hooked. From then on, he knew he wanted to be an engineer.

Eleven years later, in 2011, Karl enrolled at Walla Walla University to pursue his goal. Today, Karl remains as committed to his path as he was when he took his first engineering class. And with one more year until he graduates, he dreams of the future.

“I would love to design machinery of any purpose, whether it be for assembly lines or transportation or even space travel,” he says. “I’m interested in designing mechanisms that are more efficient and safer than their predecessors. I wouldn’t mind building a few either.”

Karl is one of WWU’s 246 engineering majors, and one of the 427 students enrolled in one of our STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programs.

At Walla Walla University we set high standards for these students, because we will ask much of them in the future.

When they enter their respective fields, they will be tasked with solving problems ranging from inventing new forms of energy and discovering cures for diseases, to teaching future scientists and creating better modes of transportation.

You may also find them staffing Walla Walla health-care facilities, public works departments, and even teaching your children in Walla Walla schools.

With one-quarter of WWU students enrolled in STEM programs, WWU is continually challenged to provide the highest standards of education and prepare students for highly competitive professional fields — relying on various people and organizations in the Valley to help us meet these challenges.

One obstacle: qualified students can see cost as a major roadblock to their education. In return, WWU provides scholarships, grants and work-study opportunities, and at least one enterprising faculty member is applying his expertise on a novel solution that benefits the entire community.

Physics professor Frederic Liebrand, together with Jim Peterson of Walla Walla Community College; Bob Carson of Whitman College; Dean of Engineering Doug Logan of WWU; Scott Peters of Columbia REA; and Bill Clemens of Pacificorp, have created WW-FREE.

WW-FREE is a nonprofit program that installs privately owned renewable energy systems on public buildings to lower their energy costs. Washington state then provides yearly production incentives up to $5,000 to each participant — and they can choose to send a portion of that to scholarship endowments for local students.

The participants in return can receive multiple tax advantages that give them enhanced rewards for helping others — and a good return on their investment.

The program is starting its second year and is still open to new participants, but Liebrand estimates approximately $20,000 has been pledged to endowments at the Walla Walla and Dayton Public Schools, Whitman College and WWU.

Another financial hurdle for our STEM programs is the high cost of staying current. The rising price of college education can be partially attributed to the requirements of the digital age and accelerating technology.

We are most appreciative to the corporations that have supported our efforts in the past by contributing equipment and technology, including Nelson Irrigation, Hewlett-Packard Company, Fluke Corporation, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Many hands are needed to build and support STEM education. You can play a part in building and supporting interest in science and technology simply by encouraging this interest in your children.

The origins of future innovations often have the humblest of beginnings — like the imagination of children such as Karl Pomare, who built his first car at his grandfather’s workbench.

John McVay is the president of Walla Walla University.

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