Thermo Fisher scientists volunteer at the first 8th grade DNA sequencing lab in 2017. Photo courtesy of CEF

From The Coast News | Catherine Allen

CARLSBAD — STEM proponents are reimagining programs that can withstand the pandemic and prepare Carlsbad students for expanding scientific fields.

As a biotech hub, Carlsbad is able to bring together the Carlsbad Educational Foundation (CEF) and local corporate donors to fund about 40 educational programs, with a growing focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

But with an indefinite shift to online learning, the hands-on experience typically vital to STEM must now be reworked to either a virtual or socially distant platform.

“It’s important now more than ever to support these programs,” said CEF’s CEO, Michelle Ginn. “The challenge we face is that we have more to do, there’s more of a need for us and yet we have fewer resources.”

Thermo Fisher scientists volunteer at the first 8th grade DNA sequencing lab in 2017. An annual program that typically takes place during spring, the lab is now one of the many STEM programs funded by the Carlsbad Educational Foundation that have been canceled due to COVID-19, causing the foundation to question how to maintain Carlsbad’s investment in STEM. Photo courtesy of CEF

Despite a fall in revenue, some key sponsors remain. Since 2014, Thermo Fisher has invested over $85,000 in FIRST Lego League robotics and elementary and middle school Science Days. Thermo Fisher’s support expanded in 2017 with an 8th-grade forensic lab program led by scientists that put their DNA sequencing curriculum into action.

Though in-person programs are halted, Thermo Fisher’s philanthropic support has continued throughout the pandemic.

“I’m really happy to see more students and young minds interested in STEM,” said Dr. Grace Zhang Li, a Thermo Fisher staff scientist. “There is always something exciting, something new– not only coronavirus. A challenge is a new opportunity for the people going into the field. What we’re experiencing right now just makes people feel like there’s more value in this work.”

Li estimates that we’ll see further growth in STEM industries over the next few years. Still, weak public school funding can leave students unprepared, which pushes CEF and companies like Thermo Fisher to engage students beyond the basic curriculum in hopes of filling those future jobs.

For instance, “STEAM” is rising in popularity, adding the arts as it applies to STEM. While CEF’s programs such as robotics employ an artistic focus with critical thinking and creativity, according to Li that vision actually aligns with the artistic design skills that are increasingly incorporated into Thermo Fisher’s product development team.

Despite an evolving platform for STEM programs, Ginn says these corporate partnerships highlight a common goal of expanding student experiences, bridging a gap between their curriculum and their community. It’s a long term investment, potentially paving the way for Carlsbad students to work for Carlsbad companies in the future.

“We have such an incredible community of STEM in San Diego, specifically Carlsbad,” Ginn said. “We know people that grow up here want to come back and work here, so by providing STEM education, we’re really hopeful that it comes full circle and that students can come back and contribute to our community here in Carlsbad.”