By Dave Engelthaler, Associate Professor at the Translational Genomics Research Institute and the Chair of the Northern Arizona Leadership Alliance. This column was adapted from the keynote speech, given by the author, at Science Foundation Arizona's "Giving a Voice to STEM" Conference at NAU on September 30, 2016.
I have often referred to Flagstaff as the Shining City on Arizona’s Hill. It is no accident that I borrow this phrase from the famous, precisely American, ideal of a “Shining City on a Hill”. The early pilgrims imagined that they could create such a community for themselves after escaping the historical norms of European controls on destiny.
Three hundred years later John F. Kennedy reminded of this founding ideal, stating that the world was watching our shining city and that we must live up to our promise; shortly there after, we embarked on one of the greatest journeys of all time and put a man’s foot on the moon (Flagstaff had something to do with that, more on that below).
Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan again reminded us of this American City on a Hill ideal; and while we may not often remember Reagan as a champion of science, he was convinced during his tenure to not only not cut the budget of the National Science Foundation, but rather double it, before he left office. But, as under Kennedy and Reagan and other presidents in before and after, no matter what our economic and cultural condition, we have always led the way in advancing humanity through the sciences.
It is this ideal that convinces me that in Flagstaff, we are a Shining STEM City on Arizona’s Hill.
In August of 2012, a group of Flagstaff Leaders, Businessmen, Educators, Scientists, and Concerned Citizens gathered in the woods on the base of the San Francisco Peaks. This group coalesced around the idea that Flagstaff is a STEM-rich City and that we as a community, businesses and schools, elected leaders and CEOs, teachers and families, needed to collectively band together to bring this rich surrounding to bear on the education of our children and enrich our communities.
There, up on our Hillside, we all mutually pledged our time, talent and resources towards making the STEM City ideals happen. In short – our goal was to have the most STEM literate graduates living and working in a thriving STEM-based economy.
We also had a unofficial motto for the day: “Dare Mighty Things”, which we borrowed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who had, just the preceding night, coordinated the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars (and again, Flagstaff had something to do with this mission). And we both stole that from Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “Far better it is to dare mighty things” speech.
Historian, Fredrick Jackson Turner, just a few years before TR’s famous speech, gave us his “Frontier Thesis”, and proclaiming that with the end of the American Frontier, so might be the end the American spirit. While Jackson aptly, and controversially, linked Americanism and American spirit to the discovery and exploration of the American Frontier, I feel that he missed the mark in not understanding the new frontiers that we would identify and explore.
Our increased understanding and use of science and engineering opened up brand new frontiers, beyond land and sea.
One such Frontier, The Space Frontier, was no longer a pastoral landscape to watch from afar. Our STEM City has been at the forefront of the exploration of this new frontier, from the discovery of Pluto, to the training of Apollo astronauts in our backyard, to the camera control of the Mars Rover from our USGS facility, and now finally to the deep space explorations through our Discovery Channel telescope, providing insight into the beginnings of our universe and images of a frontier previously unseen.
Likewise, Flagstaff is home to TGen and the new Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at NAU, where some of the brightest minds are exploring another previously unseen universe – the microbiome. Every day, scientists in Flagstaff are embarking on the incredible journey into the human microbiome – the unseen ecosystem of bacteria and viruses and fungi that live on and in the human body. We are trying to understand how these microbes live, compete, collaborate and otherwise interact during our healthy and disease states. We, ourselves, our bodies, are the new frontier – and again that frontier exploration is here in our STEM City.
And we could go on about the new frontiers ventured by W.L.Gore engineers and SenesTech scientists and MNA paleontologists and Park Service geologists. The frontier is here in our STEM City and some of the greatest pioneers are the trainers of our next generation– the teachers and education professionals of our great public, charter and private schools. Most are ready, willing and able to interact with all of these resources; and some, like former STEM City Teacher of the Year Jillian Worssam, just kick down the door and say: “Let’s do this thing!”
Our STEM City is Worssam’s wildly successful Scientists in the Classroom. It is the Flagstaff Festival of Science (the longest running one in the country). We are the Coconuts; we are the Annual STEMMY'S Awards Ceremony; the STEM Art Competition; and the Super Bowl of STEM in the Dome event (where upwards of 8% of Flagstaff turns out!); we are the Space Station Science Experiment and the High Altitude Balloon Launches; and the superstar Killip Kindergarten Chess team that likes to challenge our Mayor. We are seventh-grade girls wearing lab coats inside a world-class research lab and we are a group of high schoolers rafting down our majestic Canyon to learn our geologic past. We are the Chamber Coding Camps. We are grad students teaching and learning in the K-12 classroom. We are parents, students and teachers on a hill having a star party. We are, in a phrase, America’s First STEM Community.
Arizona, and the rest of the country, is watching our shining STEM City
and we must live up to our promise.