December 6, 2012 | Vol. 116 -- No. 33

Doing science on the top of Needham Hill

Cheney School District has location for an energy-themed, science student research site – they just need money to fund it

Cheney School District officials are taking the first steps to create an energy-themed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) site at the district’s new facilities on the grounds of the former Washington Air National Guard communication station located just off Andrus Road southeast of Four Lakes.

John McCallum
District officials think this concrete pad has the potential to be a site for students wishing to do astronomy research. Cheney can be seen in the background.

The district held a meeting Oct. 23 with 40 representatives from local school districts, universities and governmental agencies to determine possible science uses for the 63-acre site with 11 buildings, three of which are located atop Needham Hill. Cheney K-12 math and science coordinator Tami Skillingstad said the district knew they would use part of the facility – which also was a U.S. Air Force Nike missile defense site – when they acquired it from the federal government, and that after the meeting and in conjunction with input from district education staff, settled on energy instruction with a focus on alternative energy such as wind, solar and biofuels.

“We picked the energy theme because all grade levels can access it,” she said.

Some of the buildings on site are being used for storage while others are now home to relocated services such as nutrition, maintenance and operations and student support services. Other district services like administration and Homeworks will eventually locate there as well, but it was the top of Needham Hill that has Skillingstad’s and others attention.

At an elevation of 2,890 feet, Needham Hill commands excellent views of the surrounding area. The communications tower is still an active location, used by area communications companies and governmental agencies, but the three buildings belong to the district.

Skillingstad said the vision is for one to house a couple classrooms for science instruction, instruction that would be unique to the location and go beyond what is offered in classrooms down below. Another building would be lab space not only for the district, but others including Eastern Washington University’s College of Science, Health and Engineering, which is already working with Cheney on a science collaboration and has had students come up to do field work.

District associate superintendent Sean Dotson said the site offers the potential to provide students a unique science experience, something that takes them beyond a controlled classroom experiment to doing actual research while also not replicating other programs offered by other local education and governmental agencies.

“This would be where they (students) get the chance to be scientists instead of just science students,” he said.

Skillingstad said the intent is to have a place where students can have an all-day experience doing science rather than 15-30 minutes during regular class cycles. The site would include technology such as Skype, enabling students to work with other instructors and researchers outside the district.

The site also provides opportunities in other science disciplines such as botany, geology and – with its large horizon-to-horizon vista and unobstructed views – even astronomy.

“That’s our current dream right now,” Skillingstad said.

But often the realization of dreams takes money, and when it comes to funding sources to make the district’s STEM site a reality, Skillingstad can sum it up in two words: “Zero. None.”

She and Dotson hope that changes soon as the district begins to partner with others like EWU in pursuit of grants and identifying funding sources. Dotson said the key component is having a location already in hand they can show to potential sources, rather than drawings for what they hope to build. Skillingstad added they hope they can find the right funding sources to get the site running at its full potential as quickly as possible, rather than taking a piecemeal approach.

“We’d like larger in scale, rather than $1,000, $2,000 at a time,” she said.

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

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