The Washington County School District and four southern Utah tech businesses have recently won a $57,500 Utah STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) grant designed to develop and increase the technology talent in the region.

Rocketmade business development manager Joshua Aikens, who is leading and coordinating the STEM Series project, said that local tech firms are desperate to attract the right type of talent in order to grow their companies. “To steal an analogy from the water conservancy district, if we don’t build up a pipeline for a reservoir of talent, the current meager flow will not be sufficient to sustain positive growth,” Aikens said.

The Stem Series selects high school students who work as teams located at “launchpads” within the southern Utah tech companies of Rocketmade, busybusy.com, Velocity Webworks and Ydraw Inc offices. Each Launch Pad will consist of several budding programmers for Phase I, a 10 week crash course in programming and exposure to the professional world.

The clear need for the STEM Series is evident in the fact that industry partners came up with the program themselves after successfully piloting portions of the program in their own businesses, Aikens said. Rocketmade conducted the first successful Launchpad in the Spring of 2014 and Velocity Webworks is currently running a mentorship program in-house that follows the same format as Launchpad.

Phase II of the training is “Startup School” where the students will receive accelerated entrepreneurial instruction on Lean Startup and agile development from the Business Resource Center at Dixie State University.

Finally, in Phase III, the students will participate in a “Startup Derby” where they spend several months actually validating and building a product. Sponsor companies provide space to work and mentorship. At the end of the project, the Launchpad teams will pitch their ideas to the Dixie Technical Association, and the winners will receive a prize and recognition.

Participating companies hope the project will evolve a process that may help mediate the talent deficit in southern Utah. “Even though the winning products may never spawn viable businesses, the experience the participants gain will help make those students ready for a real internship, Aikens said.

USTAR (Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative) south director Jill Elliss said her team participated in the grant consortium because the mission of USTAR is turning innovation into industry.  “The dearth of trained talent is the number one obstacle preventing tech companies from commercializing their own products and technologies,” she said.

Dave Gardner, Washington County Career and Technical Education director which is the lead institutional grant applicant   believes consortiums like this provide value to students who are looking for real world experience. “We couldn’t ask for a more engaging opportunity,” he said.

Vic Hockett, vice president of the Dixie Applied Technology College, another consortium member, thinks the STEM series will pair perfectly with the DXATC’s A.M. STEM program. “Partnering with the STEM Series completes the circle of education. Pairing our AM STEM students with industry leaders and getting them experiential learning opportunities on the practical side is an imperative element for applied technical education,” he said.

Students who are interested in applying for the STEM Series click here. The Series will start in January 2015 and conclude in June 2015.