Child playing with wooden block toysEarly childhood educators across Iowa can access high-quality science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning experiences for young students thanks to the Iowa Governor’s STEM Scale-Up program and a unique partnership that has been going strong on UNI’s campus since 2017. 

This partnership exists between the Iowa Regents’ Center for Early Developmental Education (IRCEDE), which is housed in Schindler Education Center, and Panther Products, which is part of the Applied Engineering & Technical Management Department.

“A unique thing about UNI is its size allows inter-college collaboration more easily than a larger university,” said Beth VanMeeteren, director of IRCEDE.

Through this effort, VanMeeteren and her colleagues design educational products and pair them with research-based, high-quality professional learning materials that can be used to build STEM habits of mind. IRCEDE applies to the Iowa Governor STEM Advisory Council to be selected as a STEM Scale-Up program. If selected, their kit and professional learning will be one of the programs offered to teachers throughout the state. Then, Panther Products, which is a nonprofit entity that designs and produces various products for UNI campus, manufactures the educational products and assembles the kits. Panther Products works with student employees and often partners with local businesses to source the materials. 

Teachers can apply to receive the kits and professional learning at no cost to them. 

“The thing that’s special about this collaboration is it's supplying teachers and students across the state with tools they would never be able to afford,” said Lisa Riedle, head of the Applied Engineering & Technical Management Department. “We're helping teachers, and in this case, young individuals by giving them the opportunity to learn and explore.”

Since IRCEDE first became involved with the STEM Scale-Up program five years ago, the STEM kits have ended up in nearly 1,000 Iowa classrooms. IRCEDE develops its programs for educators and their children in preschool through second grade. Their most recent program, entitled WaterWorks, helps students construct an understanding of the properties of water and how to engineer its movement. 

Although this partnership is more recent, IRCEDE has been around since 1988 to support the development and education of Iowa’s children from birth to age eight. A big part of that mission in more recent years has been making sure that children are given access to STEM early on.

“It’s important for young children to have frequent access to these kinds of experiences early in life,” said VanMeeteren. “Research is showing that high-quality early STEM experiences have a positive and long-lasting impact on a child’s critical thinking and their ability to independently solve problems.” 

Through early STEM education, children are able to develop science and engineering habits of mind, inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility.

"Children whose primary strengths are in STEM are often left without support in preschool, kindergarten, first, second and third grade,” said VanMeeteren. “That’s five years without STEM learning at a critical time of their brain development. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation between STEM learning and literacy learning.”

Even after the kits make their way into classrooms, IRCEDE does everything in its power to ensure the teachers are getting the maximum benefits from the contents of the kit.

“We always get feedback from the teachers, and they give us more ideas,” said VanMeeteren. “So the kit contents that we have this year is going to be different than next year’s because we learned from the teachers, so we edit things.”

While the program is highly beneficial for IRCEDE, it’s been equally beneficial for Panther Products.

“It grows their program, and at the same time, it grows ours,” said Riedle.

Through Panther Products, Riedle said that students learn troubleshooting, teamwork and time management. They also learn about the importance of making a quality product. While many of these skills are especially beneficial to students within the Applied Engineering & Technical Management Department, Panther Products will employ students of any major.

“Most of what we do is thinking outside of the box,” said Jesse Dinsdale, the director of Panther Products. “We have to be creative, and we have to be able to problem solve without using normal processes or normal means.”

“To see a project from start to finish and get it all the way to the teachers is an opportunity our students don't always get,” said Riedle. “A lot of times in classes, students are working on a project, but they’re only given one small piece of it. So to see something from start to finish and help decide how it’s going to work —  that’s the fun part.”

Besides Dinsdale, all of the Panther Products employees are students. They utilize woodworking, CNC machining, welding, metal casting and printing to create their products.

“We've got a full manufacturing facility here,” Dinsdale explained. “It helps the students by giving them real-world experience.”

Although the STEM Scale-Up kits are Panther Products’ largest project each year, the group stays busy working on a wide variety of other items. They’ve created wraps for golf carts, name tags for campus employees, the displays for the Green Dot program, posters for research presentations and all kinds of other promotional products.