‘The New Buzzword’: How the Chehalis School District Prioritized STEM and Technical Education to Give Students a Brighter Future


Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in an ongoing series focused on the Chehalis School District and the success of its Student Achievement Initiative, which was launched in 2013. The full series can be found at chronline.com.

Since the Chehalis School District launched the Student Achievement Initiative (SAI) in 2013, W.F. West High School has placed increased focus on improving employment outcomes for its students. 

The SAI, which focuses on boosting student success, modernizing teaching practices and preparing students for college and careers, was launched to respond to what officials described as changing social and economic needs in the Chehalis community.

Through expanded student support and changes in school teaching methods, W.F. West has seen an increase in both its graduation rate and the percent of its graduates going on to earn a higher education credential. 

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and career technical education (CTE) have been central to the SAI’s goals. Indeed, in many ways, STEM served as a catalyst for the SAI. According to Chehalis School Board member J. Vander Stoep, the Chehalis Foundation, a nonprofit supporting Chehalis, first became involved in supporting the Chehalis School District through STEM, which he said has been a “big focus” of the district for many years. 

As the foundation received more donations for STEM, Vander Stoep, a Chehalis Foundation member, reached out to Orin and Kevin Smith, both successful graduates of W.F. West High School, to look into the possibility of the district receiving support from biotech firms. Orin Smith, who served as the CEO of the Starbucks Corporation, died in 2018, leaving behind an endowment to support the SAI in perpetuity.

“I was thinking there might be biotech firms that would be interested in supporting these programs here, especially molecular genetics and that perhaps Orin and Kevin knew some people with those firms and might make introductions,” Vander Stoep told The Chronicle.

While the Smiths were initially brought on to work on the district’s STEM program, their focus quickly expanded to broader educational goals, resulting in the creation of the SAI.

“Orin and myself and J. (Vander Stoep) were really the beginning of the SAI .... We didn’t create it, but we were there really right out of the gate. After the first (BERC Group) study, we kind of created the tagline ‘SAI,’” Kevin Smith said. “From the get-go, Orin and I were incredibly involved in the SAI … If Orin were still alive today, he’d still be involved in the SAI because there’s nothing more important than education.”

In partnership with the foundation, since the creation of the SAI the Chehalis School District has invested heavily in STEM education. These investments — including the acquisition of a scanning electron microscope (SEM), the construction of a STEM wing at the high school and the creation of a summer STEM camp — have created opportunities for Chehalis students interested in STEM that are nearly unheard of in other school districts around the state.

Students using the SEM, for example, are given access to technology often reserved for researchers and graduate students at universities.

The construction of the new STEM wing at the high school has allowed students to learn in an advanced setting.

“The feel of the new classrooms, it feels very college-like. The rooms are designed specifically for college courses, so that helps,” said Lynn Panther, the STEM coordinator at W.F. West. 

The district has also sought to expand opportunities for students to take STEM coursework. In addition to its already broad offering of STEM courses, including molecular genetics and robotics, in the past few years the district has added courses such as aviation. 

“We want to get more students involved in upper level STEM coursework,” Panther said.

One of the district’s main approaches to getting more students involved in STEM has been through partnering with the University of Washington (UW) to put on an annual summer STEM camp. In recent years, with the exception of the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the district has partnered with UW’s College of Engineering and Medical School to give local students in Chehalis and neighboring areas the chance to learn about STEM in a fun, hands-on way for a week during the summer. 

Originally started in the summer of 2013, W.F. West’s STEM camp wasn’t originally associated with UW. But after Orin Smith, who had served on the UW Board of Regents, died in 2018, the district began partnering with UW on the annual event. 

“We got a call from J. Vander Stoep, who several of us have known for a long time,” said Randy Hodgins, the vice president of UW’s Office of External Affairs. “I believe it was shortly after Orin Smith died, and he was wondering if UW would be able to do anything with W.F. West.”

According to Hodgins, UW maintains programming throughout the state, but one area it was less involved in was Southwest Washington. He saw the STEM camp as a way for the university to be “more present” in communities outside the Seattle area and live up to UW President Ana Mari Cauce’s nickname for the school, the University “for” Washington. 

Part of the initial focus from UW when it came to the STEM camp, according to Hodgins, was to draw students to attend. One reason UW hoped people would attend the camp was to promote interest in STEM and higher education, even if students didn’t ultimately want to attend UW.

‘It doesn’t matter where they go, what matters is they’re interested,” Hodgins said.

Hodgins said after speaking to Vander Stoep, he began reaching out to some of UW’s various STEM programs, including UW Medicine.

“Medicine bit right away,” Hodgins said.

Ian Goodhew, who serves as senior director of external affairs for UW Medicine, was already familiar with Chehalis when he was approached about UW Medicine taking part in W.F. West’s STEM Camp.

“Back in 1994, I actually worked for J. Vander Stoep,” Goodhew said. 

Goodhew was a sophomore at UW at the time and was interning with former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton’s re-election campaign, which Vander Stoep was managing. According to Goodhew, several years later, after he graduated from law school, he briefly worked as a clerk for Vander Stoep’s law firm in Chehalis while waiting for the results of the bar exam. Goodhew said he first met Orin Smith while clerking for Vander Stoep’s firm. 

“Orin was a force of nature,” Goodhew said. “I learned so much from him … and he was so passionate about improving education.”

Years later, when he was approached about W.F. West’s STEM camp, Goodhew saw it as an opportunity to honor Orin Smith, who had also been a donor to medical research at UW. 

“(I thought it was) a way, from my perspective, to get outside the King County area, get into different areas of the state and kind of honor Orin,” Goodhew said.

Goodhew said he was asked to find people from UW Medicine to send to Chehalis for the STEM camp. One of the people Goodhew spoke to was Dr. Charles Murry of UW’s Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, which researches stem cells. According to Goodhew, the decision to ask Murry to attend the camp was inspired in part by Orin Smith’s involvement with funding stem cell research at UW.

Another program of UW Medicine that Goodhew was able to draw to Chehalis for one of the STEM camps was the UW’s WISH and CREST programs, which help train health care providers by creating practice health care scenarios. 

“The kids in STEM camp loved it,” Goodhew said. 

One year, Goodhew was able to convince UW’s Institute of Health Metrics to come to the camp. The institute would later become famous during the COVID-19 pandemic for its predictions about the spread of the virus. 

Over the years, other programs and professionals of UW have visited W.F. West’s STEM camp as well. 

“We’ve always had programming for engineering and medicine,” Hodgins said. “We’ve had robotics programming down there. We’ve always seemed to have interest at the campus level.”

The camp also gives the opportunity for UW to show off research to state legislators, such as during August 2022 when all three of Chehalis’ legislators — Sen. John Braun and Reps. Peter Abbarno and Ed Orcutt — visited the camp. 

“It’s been really well received by elected officials,” Hodgins said. “Sen. Braun has been really bullish on what we’ve been doing and focusing on it very closely.”

UW wants to continue its partnership with Chehalis by hosting the STEM camp and giving students new opportunities to enjoy STEM education. 

“Right now, I think we just want to keep this going. We’re working a lot  through the foundation … That’s where a lot of the resources for this come from,” Hodgins said. “We’ll be driven by what the community is interested in doing as opposed to the other way around.”

Goodhew said he hopes to find new people from UW to come to the camp.

“We just started talking about what the date would be this summer … Now that I’m involved, I’m looking for a new institute to come down so kids last year don’t get the same thing this year,” Goodhew said. “It’s a great program.”

But while STEM has been perhaps the primary driver of the SAI, the district is looking to expand its focus in an effort to give more students the opportunity to benefit from career-focused education.

“(We want to) grow beyond STEM into career technical education,” Vander Stoep said. “When we say ‘college’ it definitely means a CTE credential as well.”

Both STEM and CTE are often seen as pathways to credentials that provide a “family wage career,” or a career that will allow someone to support raising a family. According to Vander Stoep, one of the goals of the SAI is to help Chehalis School District graduates attain a family wage career. 

According to Shawna Goble, a counselor at W.F. West, CTE is becoming the next priority for the district.

“CTE is the next big thing for SAI,” she said. “(It’s) the new buzzword.”

The Chehalis Foundation has even created a new scholarship for CTE as part of its Leonard Trust, which the foundation says supports the goals of the SAI.

Rick Goble, who now serves as the director of student achievement for the district, previously oversaw CTE at W.F. West.

“At the high school there’s definitely been more of a push for CTE,” Rick Goble said. “CTE has seen a push for more of an alignment with graduation pathways.”

As part of that push, the high school has sought to encourage students to take college courses in the high school classes, where students can earn college credit while learning in high school classrooms. 

An example of the high school’s effort can be seen in its medical terminology class, which was previously a dual credit course in which students could earn credits at Centralia College. Now students can take the class through the college in the high school program, allowing them to earn transferable credits. 

To help improve its CTE program, the high school has created a CTE advisory council consisting of members of the public who work in the trades.

“(The council helps with) making sure what we do in the classroom aligns with industry,” Rick Goble said. 

Rick Goble also said W.F. West is working to further expand its CTE program. 

“(We) hired a new teacher who will do business and marketing which we haven’t had in a few years,” Rick Goble said. 

The school is also seeking to open a “Bearcat Store,” where students can showcase and sell the items they’re working on in class.

“It’ll give them a chance to go and actually interact with the customer and see the process through all the way,” Rick Goble said. 

One way he would like to see the district work to improve its CTE program is through making students more aware of the available options.

“We’ve done a good job letting people know their options for colleges, but less for CTE,” Rick Goble said. 

He told The Chronicle education at the high school level can often seem backwards. In his view, schools should ask students what careers they want to have and then work from there.

“We should ask, ‘What kind of career do I want to have?’ And then we have that kind of mapped out for how to get there and be successful,” Rick Goble said.

Another way the district is looking at to improve its CTE program is by potentially replacing the CTE building on the W.F. West campus. 

“(The) CTE building is the oldest on campus (and) it has a lot of infrastructure problems,” Rick Goble said. 

However, while the district may ultimately replace the building with a newer one, it likely won’t happen for some time, as the district will first have to pass a bond to finance the project.

Rick Goble would also like to see a more holistic approach to the way the district teaches subjects such as math, with opportunities for students to learn those subjects while also having the opportunity for specialized CTE.

“I think about CTE, and you have a kid who wants to be an electrician. Why couldn't we have some applied math classes that are very specific to the skills they need to be an electrician?” Goble asked. “How do we create a system to better serve our students in regards to college and careers?”


Achieving Success is the title of an ongoing series of stories focused on the Chehalis School District and its Student Achievement Initiative. Look for more installments in upcoming editions of The Chronicle. The series will be compiled at chronline.com. Reporter Matthew Zylstra is a W.F. West High School graduate.