MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It's a common refrain from policymakers, business leaders and parents - more STEM, as in more science, technology, engineering and math. But strong STEM programs are often too expensive for schools, and energy companies are increasingly footing the bill. Wyoming Public Radio's Aaron Schrank reports.
AARON SCHRANK, BYLINE: At Pinedale Elementary School in Western Wyoming, fourth graders are busy building small cars out of what look like high-tech Lego pieces. Andy Jones swipes through instructions on an iPad to make sure his car is just right.
ANDY: We're going to put an egg on it, then we're going to roll it down a ramp. It's probably going to crack, so then we can make adjustments to it so it doesn't crack.
SCHRANK: This activity and these materials are all part of an engineering curriculum called Project Lead the Way launched here last year. Liz David helps teach the program.
LIZ DAVID: It's giving the kids the opportunity to really expand and do what an engineer does - propose something new.
SCHRANK: The program is available for students from third grade through high school. Middle schoolers here are learning 3-D modeling software in computer-aided manufacturing class. And students at the high school down the road can take a class called Principles of Engineering.
BRU'N: If you ever think about going into, like, engineering, it'd be nice to take this class so then you could either decide if it was for you or not.
SCHRANK: That's Pinedale High School junior Bru'N Tribbit. Most of his classmates are building truss bridges out of balsa wood, but he's opted to build the machine that will calculate the forces applied to those bridges.
He rolls out a heavy-duty toolbox filled with robotics parts.
BRU'N: It's like a kit that they send that's part of the program.
SCHRANK: Programs like this exist at about 10 percent of high schools in the country. Superintendent Jay Harnack says when it comes to engineering classes, Project Lead the Way is known as the very best.
JAY HARNACK: They don't call it the gold standard for nothing. It's expensive.
SCHRANK: Two-hundred thousand dollars - way too expensive for his school district to afford with state funds alone, so that's why Harnack turned to the private sector. QEP Resources, a major player in the area's natural gas industry, put up all the money for the program this year. Harnack is grateful but says he'd like to see more of that money coming from the state.
HARNACK: I get a message from the governor that says I want a particular kind of graduate with these skills. You can't have that expectation and a model that doesn't align with that expectation.
SCHRANK: But big energy's labor needs do align with these expectations. Shanda Vangas is QEP's corporate contributions adviser.
SHANDA VANGAS: It's hard to find the people with the skill set we need now to fill the jobs that we have, and we know we have an aging workforce. We need to be investing in our future workforce.
SCHRANK: QEP hopped on the STEM bandwagon last year, giving more than a million dollars to programs in states like Wyoming, North Dakota and Utah. Most big energy companies have upped support for STEM in recent years. Chevron will shell out $30 million this year, mostly to schools in California, Texas and Pennsylvania. QEP's Vangas says industry is really leading the STEM charge.
VANGAS: We can't just sit around and wait for other people to figure out how we improve schools. Like, we need to be a partner and help to make that happen.
MINDA BERBECO: Anytime the industry is involved in science education, they have their own interests.
SCHRANK: Minda Berbeco is with the National Center for Science Education. So far, she says, there doesn't seem to be problems with these energy-backed STEM classes promoting bad science or lopsided ideology. But parents and teachers should pay close attention.
BERBECO: We need to be really conscious of what that looks like, though, to make sure that it's really aligning with the science and making sure that educators feel confident teaching the science and don't feel like there's any undue influence because of where the money is coming from.
SCHRANK: Thanks to the oil and gas downturn, QEP says it's making some cuts to the Pinedale program next school year. But research shows these programs are probably good investments for energy companies. Nationwide, high schoolers who took a Project Lead the Way class were three to four times more likely to study engineering in college. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schrank in Laramie, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.