In rural areas of eastern Washington, the quality and availability of education that students receive in the science and technology fields can widely vary depending on the school district. This is why the Eastern Washington Area Health Education Center (EWAHEC) is seeking public feedback on a project to create a mobile laboratory that would travel to all 20 counties in eastern Washington, filling educational gaps in their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
“We want to hear from absolutely everyone,” said EWAHEC Director Krista Loney. “Teachers may think they’re doing enough for STEM education, but parents and business owners may not feel the same way. That’s why we’re trying to get as many people as possible to take this survey, because we want to know, and not just believe, that they think this mobile lab has value and isn’t just something shiny and new that comes to community once a year and teaches their kids.”
Transportation is one of the biggest barriers the EWAHEC faces when trying to serve students in rural areas, Loney said.
In 2015, Eastern Washington University took over management of the EWAHEC, and is now based within EWU Spokane’s College of Health Science and Public Health, with an office in the Phase I Classroom Building. Getting students to come to the EWAHEC from across the 42,500 square mile service area of eastern Washington isn’t always feasible, and this solution would allow the EWAHEC to go to them.
AHEC is a national program that was created by the U.S. Congress in 1971 to recruit, train and retain a health profession workforce to underserved populations, and that remains the primary mission for the mobile laboratory project.
“We’re pushing 2018 and we still haven’t addressed the healthcare worker shortage,” said Loney. “We’ve got to get some people back to rural areas and have them practicing. I think a mobile lab would definitely get us closer to our mission.”
Although the curriculum hasn’t been developed yet, the idea is to provide a hands-on, interactive education to engage students in a way that has not only been shown to improve test scores, but also instill a deeper interest in STEM subjects.
Loney said the curriculum would be similar to what Seattle Children’s Hospital is doing with their own mobile laboratory, with STEM-based lesson plans on gel electrophoresis, bacterial transformation, DNA extraction and polymerase chain reaction.
“By having this mobile lab that goes out and teaches stuff that students don’t learn in the classroom, maybe we can spark interest in some of those young people, and maybe some of those young people will go to college or medical school and come back to the rural area,” she said.
The mobile laboratory for eastern Washington is still in the idea phase and the cost could range anywhere from $100,000 to more than $1 million. The bulk of the cost would go toward the vehicle itself, with other supply, support and maintenance costs included.
To raise funds for the mobile laboratory, EWAHEC plans on searching for partnerships with local businesses, private foundations and other grant opportunities.
“This is year one of a five-year implementation plan, and we’re going to do about six months of data collection,” said Loney. “So after the new year, we’re going to have a look at what people say and really make our conclusions from there and see what our next steps are.”
To participate in the survey, visit the EWAHEC website.