The Washington STEM Learning Tours were filled with engaging experiences, robust learning communities, and eye opening conversations.

Behind the scenes, a dedicated group of STEM Network members were hard at work organizing, coordinating, and making sure things went smoothly for the 80 plus people that took part in both tours. I sat down to talk with one of the individuals responsible for organizing a day spent in the Yakima Valley on the statewide Learning Tour to discuss his experience around the Learning Tour and what makes his region so unique.


Mark Cheney is the the Network Director of the Washington STEM South Central STEM Network. . Thanks to Mark and the amazing people within the network,  we had engaging conversations and enlightening showcases at Zillah High School, the Yakama Nation Cultural Center, and the during the statewide Learning Tour.


Mark Cheney

Mark Cheney welcomes Learning Tour attendees to Zillah High School.

When Mark was asked to organize the South Central STEM Network showcase during the Learning Tour, he remarked “All of a sudden a spotlight is shown right on your region. When I saw who was coming, I so respect the great work that is going on in these people’s regions and in their own projects, it was a bit intimidating. Yet at the same time, I’m so excited about the things we have going on.


Mark was ecstatic to show off eastern Washington and give the tour ambassadors a closeup of the Yakima Valley. “You can’t replicate first hand experience, you can do your best with second hand and video tours, but nothing matches being there, seeing the area, talking with the people, and getting that info first hand,” Mark said. I can attest to those first hand experiences being transformational, as I wrote about my own experiences at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center.


We meet at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center.

Learning Tour attendees meet at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center.

In a region where STEM education takes on a form that deviates from what most people see as STEM related, collaboration and partnerships are a necessity. “In south central Washington, we’re primarily an agricultural economy, Between soil science, the automation of packing houses, or manufacturing airplane parts, STEM skills are needed more than ever in the Yakima Valley. “It’s been amazing to me, the willingness and eagerness to connect on the part of the business community and how they see themselves so vested in the work we’re doing in developing their future workforce.”


That willingness and eagerness has been vital in creating awareness of the STEM jobs that exist in the Yakima Valley. Access to information can be barrier for a lot of students and parents living in rural eastern Washington. With a highly mobile population, having a computer isn’t enough. Internet access is becoming more and more vital for accessing information that would otherwise be out of reach. Mark states: “If [parents and students] don’t have consistent access to information, and information is power for these kids, parents don’t have the information to advocate for their kids, and that’s a barrier.”

Student nurses at the Yakima Valley Technical Skills Center explain the skills they are learning.

Student nurses at the Yakima Valley Technical Skills Center explain the skills they are learning.

Mark prioritizes coordination and collaboration in the Yakima Valley. Currently, among other efforts, a science co-op brings teachers together from across the area to discuss curriculum and best practices; a Science Leadership Network creates professional development opportunities for teachers focused on the Next Generation Science Standards; and 23 out of the 25 school districts use a common cirruculum.


Common Core and Next Generation Science standards have continued to drive that collaboration and equity across the region. When asked about the mobility of students in the Yakima Valley and shared learning standards, Mark said “Number one: they are going to see the same materials. Number two: their teachers were trained in the same way. We have tried to deal with that reality here by being as proactive as possible around region-wide professional development, curriculum adoption, and adoption of instructional materials so that as kids move, and we know they’re going to, we want to minimize the impact of that move as much as possible. The new standards have just helped that.”


By engaging all of the various stakeholders in the Yakima Valley, with the students being the primary stakeholder, the region has positioned itself to seize the opportunities for a quality education for all. Mark Cheney admits that there’s still plenty of work to do, but he’s optimistic that the challenges can be met, and the barriers can be broken down.