Agilent preps new program for middle school instructors, students

SANTA ROSA -- Agilent Technologies and the Sonoma County Office of Education are preparing to launch a new collaborative program for middle school instructors this summer, providing educators a two-week externship that will ultimately fuel a real-world engineering project for students during the academic year.

Made possible by a $25,000 grant from the Agilent Foundation and the participation of Agilent employees, the yet-to-be-named public-private program adopts an approach that organizers said is likely a first for Sonoma County. Teachers will shadow a range of workers at Agilent, with a goal of determining the sort of skills in-demand at the company's Santa Rosa-based electronic measurement division.

The program is the latest in a long history of public-private education partnerships involving Agilent and its charitable foundation, joining other efforts to boost career-oriented pathways in schools and enthusiasm for careers in science, technology, engineering and math -- STEM, in the parlance of educators.

"The whole goal is to build what they call a 'STEM-going culture,'" said Stephen Jackson, director of career technical education and workforce preparation at the Sonoma County Office of Education. "We're building a nice pipeline. If we can promote middle school interest in STEM, then there are STEM programs at the high schools, the J.C. and Sonoma State."

Middle school-level education programs have been regular recipients of grant awards from the Agilent Foundation, which has awarded between $50,000 and $75,000 per year for the past five years and supported education programs in Sonoma County for over a decade, said Agilent spokesman Jeff Weber.

Those programs include the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce's Mike Hauser Algebra Academy -- focused on algebra education for English language learners entering the ninth grade -- the "Agilent Afterschool" program and the "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day" that draws around 200 girls and young women to the company's campus.

The Sonoma County Office of Education and Agilent are together in the process of vetting program applicants from around the county. Five will be admitted, he said.

Those teachers will work as a group alongside Agilent employees to develop a practical project that students explore as part of their coursework.

"They'll be spending two weeks working side-by-side with our employees, many of which are engineers and managers. It will show a real-world application for a curriculum (students) are learning," said Mr. Weber.

Projects might include concepts like antenna design and sound quality for electronic devices, Mr. Jackson said.

"We want to inspire young people to enter into these careers," he said. The projects "need to be something the student is interested in."

The Agilent-sponsored program is part of a broader movement among public entities, regional educators and employers to support the kind of science, engineering, technical and math skills that are currently in demand by some of the county's largest companies.

Those efforts are varied: the so-called CTE Fund, launched in 2012, has reached nearly $1 million in public and private donations and recently finalized plans to sponsor 10 career-oriented courses throughout Sonoma County in the coming academic year, said executive director Kathy Goodacre, the fund's executive director. 101 MFG, a manufacturer's industry group based in Santa Rosa, has also seen more employers take part in its internship and job-shadow programs for students -- Agilent included.

Agilent, whose Santa Rosa-based division will spin off to form the independent "Keysight Technologies" later this year, also supports programs for other grade levels through financial contributions and staff time. The company has donated millions of dollars in testing equipment for use at educational labs at Sonoma State University, and serves with 11 other firms on the college's recently formed North Bay Engineering Industry Advisory Board.

"The sweet spot seems to be in the middle school range," Mr. Weber said. "If you can reach students in middle school and get them interested in STEM education, it seems they matriculate well to the college level."

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