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K-State News
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Rural Education Center receives grant for nearly $2.7 million to boost interest in STEM degrees, careers

Monday, Nov. 1, 2021



MANHATTAN — The Rural Education Center in Kansas State University's College of Education has been awarded a three-year U.S. Department of Defense grant for nearly $2.7 million to help mentor and promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees and careers to seventh- through 12th-grade students throughout the state.

The project is part of more than $47 million in awards recently announced under the National Defense Education Program in STEM, Biotechnology and Enhanced Civics Education.

In partnership with the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas, the Rural Education Center plans to build upon the College of Education's successful Summer STEM Institute to encourage middle and high school students in Kansas to consider careers in STEM through Project LEAPES, which stands for Learning, Exploration and Application for Prospective Engineering Students.

Spencer Clark, director of the Rural Education Center and associate professor of curriculum and instruction, said the primary goal of Project LEAPES is to engage students in awareness, exploration and preparation activities related to careers in aerospace engineering, artificial intelligence and computer science.

"Project LEAPES will situate Kansas and the Plains region as a vital part of the DOD STEM ecosystem by sharing resources and developing new engineers to contribute to the nationwide network of DOD partnerships in STEM," Clark said.

Project LEAPES will offer three programming phases: an awareness camp for seventh- and eighth-grade students, career exploration for ninth and 10th graders, and academic and career preparation for 11th and 12th graders. Nearly 3,000 students and 360 teachers are expected to take part in the project's summer programs over the three years of the grant. Project LEAPES also will provide in-person and virtual opportunities for students, as well as professional learning sessions for teachers during the school year.

"We are excited to receive this grant to help further our growth in the Rural Education Center and continue to guide students in pursuing degrees in STEM," said Debbie Mercer, dean of the College of Education. "Each summer, we witness the wonderful effects of the Summer STEM Institute and the passion that the Rural Education Center has for enhancing learning. Momentum is building through this grant award. I have no doubt we will continue to expand and impact more lives."

This is the second grant that partners the Rural Education Center and the KU center. Both were partners on a National Science Foundation grant for a geosciences project.

"Education in STEM must start early," said Shawn Keshmiri, a professor of aerospace engineering who is leading KU's participation in the grant. "With China producing more artificial intelligence scholarly publications, competition is intensifying between U.S. and China, but the European Union and Russia are also spending huge amounts of money on AI and machine learning. To protect U.S. technological dominance, training a workforce that is good in competition is vital. Project LEAPES offers a golden opportunity to train and motivate feature generation of aerospace engineers, computer scientists and STEM workforce."

Lori Goodson, assistant director of the Rural Education Center and assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, said Project LEAPES also will build upon the Virtual Summer STEAM Academy the college launched last summer. The grant will provide funding for 40 schools and up to 500 middle schoolers to participate in the college's Virtual STEAM Academy.

"Our Virtual STEAM Academy was modeled after our successful face-to-face Summer STEM Institute, which is a collaborative effort with Manhattan-Ogden USD 383," Goodson said. "This grant will help us reach more schools with our hands-on STEAM activities and build our virtual program."

To help manage Project LEAPES, Kevin Colle has been hired as program coordinator. Colle, who will graduate in December from the College of Education with a bachelor's degree in secondary education, has extensive knowledge working in rural initiatives and will help foster relationships with industry leaders in aerospace, artificial intelligence and computer science. Also assisting with the project will be Diane Beets, Rural Education program coordinator, who will assist in making connections with participating school districts.

School districts and industry leaders interested in learning more about this program should contact the Rural Education Center at 785-532-3977 or ruraled@k-state.edu.


Spencer Clark


Rural Education Center

Written by

Sarah Harper