Data centers, Loudoun Education Foundation partner to promote STEM careers

STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education increasingly has become a focus for schools across the region. And the data center community is working with local schools and education groups, hoping to cultivate student interest in STEM and related careers.

It takes a community to help improve education and encourage students to try new pathways, said Danielle Nadler, executive director of Loudoun Education Foundation, an independent nonprofit that supports Loudoun County Public Schools, students and educators.

Nadler said her organization does that by leveraging the generosity of the community to invest in innovative and often critical programming that supports students and educators.

“It’s been incredible,” she said, “in both big and small ways.” Companies such as Amazon Web Services, Google, Microsoft and others have invested in programs like the K–12 Computer Science Pipeline, which is “taking computer science and integrating it into all subject areas and really creating a classroom-to-career pipeline for the future workforce of these data centers and these tech companies.”

Creating a classroom-to-career pipeline

On the micro level, as Nadler put it, the data center community has supported the foundation’s programs. For instance, employees regularly show up to volunteer for the “Backpack Coalition,” which provides weekend meals for food-insecure students and their families. AWS and Microsoft have also given donations to fund meal pantry programs, which feed a thousand students throughout Loudoun County, she said.

Offering more examples, Nadler added that Google recently awarded the Loudoun Education Foundation a $50,000 grant to support a summer math program for students from under-resourced communities — students who just need a little bit of extra mentorship or an extra push to go from the traditional math track to an advanced math track. She said 100% of the 108 students enrolled in the program last summer improved and moved to a new track. “That’s a key measurable way that they’re impacting students,” she said.

On a bigger scale, AWS recently gifted the foundation with an AWS Think Big Space at Simpson Middle School in Leesburg.

“That’s a space where teachers from throughout the region, not just Loudoun, but throughout Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, will come,” Nadler said.

It will serve as a training hub where middle and high school teachers can learn how to teach computer science to their students, and for elementary school teachers to learn how to integrate computer science throughout their curricula. The Think Big Space will also serve as a hands-on learning lab for students, not just at Simpson Middle School, but throughout Loudoun County.

Helping meet future workforce needs

These investments will help meet the future workforce needs and support regional economic development.

“A couple of years ago, the Loudoun Education Foundation won a $2.4 million Go Virginia Grant,” Nadler said. “We used those funds to create the Virginia K–12 Computer Science Pipeline.”

At the high school and middle school levels, the pipeline includes computer science courses like robotic design, programming, cybersecurity and software design. At the elementary level, where the program is leading the nation, students are exposed to computational thinking and problem solving throughout every one of their courses, she said.

In one example, provided by a teacher at Sterling Middle School, students are designing — through the video game Minecraft — a world that illustrates the early colonies. “How many kids are doing Minecraft for fun on weekends?” Nadler wondered aloud. “Now, they get to do it in school and see that … this can lead to a career, which is really exciting.”

The Loudoun Education Foundation has seen firsthand, she said, that the data center community and its corporate leaders are willing to not only be generous with donations but to literally roll up their sleeves, Nadler said. Working together, the education and tech communities are connecting K–12 students with the college community and creating a pipeline that sets students on a variety of STEM career paths.

Listen to the full interview:

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