Lawmakers sharpen STEM focus with new panel

Neither Sen. Bob Nonini nor Rep. Reed DeMordaunt were sure how many legislators would take them up on their offer to join a new panel devoted to education.

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Sen. Bob Nonini, R- Coeur d’Alene

After all, many legislators already have three committee assignments, floor obligations, and meetings with constituents, lobbyists and state officials.

Eight-to-12-hour days are the norm at the Statehouse anyway.

But when Nonini, a Republican from Coeur d’Alene called the first meeting of the bipartisan STEM Caucus on Tuesday, 36 of 105 lawmakers turned out. Republicans and Democrats attended alongside Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, representatives from the State Board of Education and other state officials.

Doing the math quickly, Nonini realized that more than one-third of the Legislature was on board.

Nonini and DeMordaunt, the Eagle Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, announced the STEM Caucus earlier this session. With the session’s focus devoted to education, and workforce and labor needs being passed on from regional CEOs, the two lawmakers thought it was the perfect time to shake things up.

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Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle

“Exposing the other legislators who don’t serve on education committees… or JFAC –they don’t hear all of the proposals and all of the presentations and how important STEM is to the whole system,” Nonini said. “We wanted to be able to expose the other 85 people to some of the stuff we hear on the education committees.”

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For both of them, STEM issues translate to good, 21st Century jobs for Idaho’s students and a potential shot in the arm for the economy.

“Education often times doesn’t have that perspective, and the fact that the economy and workforce needs are what’s driving this as an education agenda – I found that fascinating,” DeMordaunt said.

In legislative lingo, a caucus is a group of lawmakers who attend meetings devoted to a cause they share or embrace. Around the Statehouse, the majority and minority caucus meetings are commonplace for Republicans and Democrats, respectively.

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Rep. Dan Rudolph, D-Lewiston, checks out the plasma globe about the STEM bus. Photo courtesy of Betsy Z. Russell, Spokesman-Review.

But aside from the Sportsmen’s Caucus, DeMordaunt said he isn’t aware of any other active caucus in the Legislature.

Tuesday’s first STEM meeting was highlighted a keynote address from Utah-based Micron Foundation government affairs coordinator Stan Lockhart and a tour of Discovery Technology’s STEM Bus.

Aboard the STEM bus, lawmakers experienced hands-on experiments related to robotics, circuitry, video game programming, computers, biotech and more.

Nonini describes the STEM bus as “a little rock concert devoted to STEM,” complete with music, lights and sometimes drones flying overhead. He said the bus is an excellent resource to raise interest in Treasure Valley students. But he wants to push for more statewide resources through the new STEM Caucus so students from North and Eastern Idaho don’t miss out.

Using Lockhart’s Utah experience as a jumping off point, Nonini and DeMordaunt also want to establish a formal STEM council within Idaho government. Potentially, the program could be based out of the governor’s office or the departments of labor or commerce, but details have yet to be finalized.

Based on interest in this week’s first meeting, DeMordaunt and Nonini hope to convene STEM caucus meetings regularly and use them as springboard to push legislation or create an Idaho STEM council that unites businesses and government.

“There is no time like the present, and, with the turnout we had, I think we should work toward that goal,” Nonini said.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces we want to put together,” he continued. “Thankfully, we have all the great pieces in the box.”

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