(EDITOR’S NOTE: STEM News is new feature on Local Tech Wire through a collaborative effort with the NC STEM Community Collaborative, MCNC, and the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Center (SMT Center). To submit story ideas, please email LTW Editor Rick Smith rsmith@wral.com or Noah Garrett noah@thinkngc.com.)

LUMBERTON, N.C. – While Washington insiders’ debate the future direction of the nation’s space efforts, the agency overseeing space exploration continues to plow ahead with a less glamorous but equally important aspect of their work: helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds acquire the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills they need to become part of an educated workforce.

The (NASA) came to Lumberton earlier this month to talk to high school students about STEM education, and the importance of science and math to their own futures and to the future of their community.

The NASA event, sponsored by , was held at Lumberton Airport, in conjunction with the 7th Annual Mid-Atlantic Fly-In and Sports Aviation Convention, one of the area’s largest sports air shows.

Tom Mitchell, a Robeson County native and NASA Executive, was one of the presenters. He spoke of the role math and science education played in propelling him from the fields of Lumberton to his present role as an executive with NASA – and touted STEM education as a tool to lift the economies of rural communities.

After completing his two-year degree at Robeson Community College (then Robeson Tech), he was accepted into an apprenticeship program at NASA, and worked his way to two masters degrees and a distinguished career – all assisted by his long-time employer.

During his presentation, Mitchell asked students, “How many (of you) have taken Algebra 1?” About half of the hands shot up.

He then asked how many had taken calculus. Only one hand shot up.

This is not unusual.

Recent education statistics in North Carolina – as it is in much of the United States – shows that fewer than half the students predicted to succeed in 8th grade algebra actually enroll that year.

Dr. Freda Porter said she is disappointed in these numbers.

A member of the , she is one of few American Indian women with a doctorate in applied mathematics. Once completing her studies at Duke, Porter served as a research fellow at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. “My time at NASA was one of the most educational and exciting years of my life,” she said.

Porter is also a small business owner. As president of Porter Scientific, an environmental consulting services firm based in Pembroke, her business depends on having employees with a background in engineering, math, geology, and laboratory sciences. She now employs more than 20 people.

“It’s a challenging time to run a small business in rural North Carolina,” Porter said in an interview last year with WUNC-TV. “We need more workforce development training and education in this area. That’s absolutely crucial.”

In September, Robeson Community College was granted $412,238 by NASA for programs that prepare students for STEM jobs. Robeson Community College is the only two-year institution in the nation to receive this grant.

The grant is an important piece in a larger effort to transform the economy in Robeson County by advancing STEM education resources and training opportunities for the county’s future workforce.

Robeson County is one of eleven counties surrounding Ft. Bragg participating in the Community Collaborative’s Community Visioning Process. Through this process, local stakeholders develop systematic improvements in local STEM education, thus insuring an educated workforce that attracts employers in such industries as technology and advanced manufacturing.

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(Editor’s note: For an NC STEM video of a recent shuttle launch, )