Lawmakers, UW Officials Attend W.F. West STEM Camp, Leave Impressed by Student Learning


All three of the 20th Legislative District’s legislators — Reps. Ed Orcutt and Peter Abbarno and Sen. John Braun — were at W.F. West High School on Wednesday afternoon to observe student activities at the school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Camp. The camp, which is put on annually with the help of the University of Washington (UW) and the Chehalis Foundation, involves a variety of STEM-based activities. It was open to students from around the area for $25. This year’s STEM Camp was put on with the support of the University of Washington’s Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) and College of Engineering.

The legislators were joined by a group that included administrators from the University of Washington and the Chehalis School District as well as representatives from the Chehalis Foundation. They were taken to the school’s STEM wing where they heard representatives from the UW speak before having the chance to participate in the student activities.

“We have a certain champion in the Senate,” said Chuck Murry, director of the ISCRM, alluding to Braun.

Murry told the group the UW views community outreach, including their work at W.F. West’s STEM Camp, to be a crucial part of their role as a public university.

“We’re a state university and we like to get out into the community,” Murry said. “Part of what we’re hoping to do is promote life science industries in the community. I’d like to see our state not just be known for its aerospace and computer science industries, but for its regenerative medicine as well.”

While it may seem unusual for Washington’s flagship university to have such a sizable presence in a rural community, the UW views the camp as being within its mission of community outreach, a mission that exists, in part, thanks to perhaps Chehalis’ most notable export, Orin Smith, the former Starbucks CEO who donated large amount of money in the community prior to his death.

“Orin was a regent at UW. I worked with Orin and this was his alma mater here as was the UW and he was all about bringing the university out into the community,” said Randy Hodgins, vice president for external relations at UW, about Smith, who grew up in Chehalis.

“We don’t have a lot of a presence in Southwest Washington and we thought it would go great with the STEM focus here at W.F. West. We’re bringing undergraduate and graduate programs here and the kids are just eating it up … We’re happy to be back, we’re happy to be here again and we’re hoping to make this a perennial (event). We’re working with the district (so that) whatever works is what we want to do. Lewis County is just as much a part of the state as anywhere else.”

For the students, the activities the UW brings to STEM camp present exciting new experiences.

“I think it’s a really cool new experience because it’s not like anything I’ve done before and I get to learn about more career paths and opportunities for the future,” said Bryce Kuykendall, a 16-year-old student at W.F. West.

“The experience gave me a more broad idea about biology and the careers, which are very broad,” added Shivtaj Dhudwal, a 15-year-old student at W.F. West.

During the camp, the students and the legislators who came to observe had the chance to participate in a variety of activities. The activities included getting to inflate pig lungs with a pump to see what breathing looks like, holding a human brain, touching the lungs of someone who had died from COVID-19 and using a device that, when wires are attached to two people’s arms, allowed one person to move another person’s arm with their own by sensing nerve activity.

“It’s fascinating,” said Abbarno. “It didn’t hurt, but you could definitely feel it.”

The excitement over the learning opportunities the STEM camp brings wasn’t just felt by the students.

“This has been incredible, the medical side of things. Lots of little mini lessons that go about 45 minutes or an hour and get the kids excited about medical topics,” said Chris White, a math teacher at W.F. West.

Bob Walters, the principal at W.F. West, said the school’s STEM camp has evolved over the years, and since partnering with UW several years ago, the camp has expanded.

“We made some connections with UW and I think they were aware of our new STEM wing as well. They have an outreach program as well. The medical program and engineering school were able to work with us and it’s grown from there,” Walters told The Chronicle.

But the students and staff weren’t the only ones impressed by what they saw at the camp. The researchers who came from Seattle to teach at the camp were impressed as well, particularly by the technology high school students have access to at W.F. West.

“You guys have a scanning electron microscope? That’s amazing!” Nate Sniadecki, a professor of mechanical engineering and the associate director of ISCRM, told The Chronicle.

“It’s really cool you guys actually have one right there in the other room!” Kendan Jones-Isaac, a PhD student at the UW studying pharmaceutics, told a group of students while teaching them about an experiment he had been a part of researching kidney stones in astronauts.

For the state legislators watching the activities, the camp stood as an example of the types of learning experiences that can benefit children and open their eyes to the opportunities available to them.

“This STEM camp is a great opportunity for student learning — and if that was all it did, it would provide tremendous benefit to the students,” Orcutt said. “But it also gives students introduction and insight into potential career opportunities and builds excitement into the possibilities of following one of those career paths. The classes we saw today will not only benefit students in choosing education and career paths, but when they choose one of these career paths, it can lead also to advancement of healthcare and increased availability of healthcare professionals — a benefit to everyone.”

For Abbarno, the camp was the type of experience he hopes can be made available across the state to get more students excited about learning.

“The STEM camp is an amazing educational experience for our local students and is the product of a very partnership. The program ignites passion in our students for science, technology, engineering and mathematics that helps cultivate a lifetime of learning and exploration. This is exactly the type of program we want to support and replicate across the state,” Abbarno said.

Braun saw the camp as an opportunity to help students recover from the learning loss experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic while also getting them excited about potential new career paths.

“I was glad to visit the STEM camp put on through a partnership between the University of Washington and Chehalis School District. I was impressed,” he said. “Students were clearly engaged in the content. Remote education and other COVID restrictions took a toll on our kids and resulted in a learning loss that has left our graduates unprepared for higher education. Partnerships that enrich the curriculum and excite kids about what comes next after high school could be an important tool for making up that loss. This camp, which focuses on engineering and the medical field, is being taught, in part, by university students. Peer education is effective, especially with teenagers. And the exposure to industry leaders is beyond what students get in the standard public school curriculum. I hope to see more of these programs implemented statewide by the UW and other universities. It’s a bridge our kids need right now to get back on track.”