Barbara Brody (left) and Nickie Shira are part of a STEM programming team that was recently recognized for national awards by the 4-H. (The Enterprise/Carolyn Agrimis)

ONTARIO – Barbara Brody is tearing up, but don’t worry – these are happy tears.

It’s just after 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and she’s sitting across from her colleague Nickie Shira at a classroom table in Treasure Valley Community College. As they speak, the two of them can’t stop smiling. 

Brody and Shira are reveling in the fact that both of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) youth programs they helped create have been selected as the winners of national awards from the 4-H.

They aren’t sure they will attend the award ceremony, scheduled for October in Columbus, Ohio. 

The successful projects, Malheur Youth Health Science Day and Malheur Youth Aviation Field Day, give middle schoolers across Malheur County a glimpse at future possible careers. The programs have been in place for a couple of years and both have grown each year.

The national awards made Shira feel like their hard work was being recognized, she said.

“We’re really excited about it,” said Shira. 

 “To have the work that we are doing here be recognized on a nation level is very validating,” Brody said.

 “This was our idea, an eastern Oregon idea,” Brody said of the project. “It’s grassroots work that’s being recognized nationally, which is huge. That’s why it’s so important to me.”

Brody, who works for the Oregon State University’s Malheur County extension office, initially came up with the idea for a youth aviation program after she conducted a needs assessment with community agencies five years ago. When the assessment came back, she noticed that career opportunities in aviation and health sciences came up repeatedly.

Brody worked up a curriculum to use in Ontario schools to introduce students to the aviation field. 

Not much later, Shira, who works for the Malheur Education Service District, saw the work that Brody was doing in Ontario schools and talked to her about the program’s expansion.

“Nickie came in and said ‘Let’s reach every kid in Malheur County,’” said Brody. 

Together, the two educators began reaching out to local businesses and sponsors to see who from the aviation and health sciences fields they could get on board to make STEM careers more accessible to the students of Malheur County.

The response was “overwhelming,” according to Brody.

For the health science day, they worked with local organizations like Saint Alphonsus Medical Center and the nursing program at Treasure Valley Community College. The first Malheur Youth Health Science day took place in December 2016. 

In the day-long event at TVCC, seventh graders interact with health care professionals and college students enrolled in medical programs. 

“They want students to sit in the classrooms and be able to see themselves as future college students, that they can do this,” said Shira.

The aviation field day serves a similar purpose of helping kids envision possible careers, said Brody. 

Tom Frazier of Frazier Aviation, who Brody contacted for help, put her in contact with other businesses in the area that her and Shira “wouldn’t be aware of” without him.

Frazier, who has been involved with the world of aviation from the late 1960s and with the Aviation Field Day program since it started five years ago, said that the project “keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

He said that these days “all airlines” are looking for pilots and that there are “lots of opportunities” in aviation careers.

“One of the things that we see being here at the airport [in Ontario] is we see and talk to these guys and hear what the shortage is in aviation careers, shortage in pilots and plane mechanics,” said Frazier. “For example, right now, these guys that are here during fire season flying fire tankers, they’re looking for young people that they can get involved in aviation programs to get trained up and then fly those tankers.”

 The Aviation Field Day featured community partners such Life Flight, Frazier Aviation, and the Ontario Municipal Airport. 

These partnerships were instrumental in getting both programs off of the ground, according to Brody. 

Each field day required months of work to develop curriculum, orient volunteers and organize partners.

Each program has grown every year since their implementation. The 2017 health science day had over 700 seventh grade participants from across the county and the aviation day in May this year had over 400 sixth graders from every middle school in Malheur County. 

The program is growing, too. Educators in Grant County have adopted similar hands-on programs inspired by Brody and Shira’s work and other counties from around the state are now asking for their curriculum. 

And because of the awards, Brody and Shira are working on creating curriculum plans for similar programs that can be used nationwide.

To accommodate this growth, both the aviation and the health science workforce development days won’t return until next year. 

Brody and Shira will use the year off to improve the existing programs.

After reviewing the post-event assessments that students filled out, Brody and Shira determined that both field days would be more useful to the kids if they were moved a grade level up.

By making this change, the lessons the students learn in those hands-on experiences will be fresher in their minds as they enter high school and begin thinking about career paths. 

“These are local career pathways. It’s not out of their realm,” said Brody. “We want to keep our kids local and show them those opportunities that are here.”  

“Aviation in eastern Oregon is growing and developing by leaps and bounds due to the fact that Barb Brody, Oregon State University, and Nickie Shira stepped up to the plate,” said Frazier. “They worked diligently for making the program a success.” 

Carolyn Agrimis: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.