Toward the end of a conversation with Rogers State University President Larry Rice, a reporter asks for the correct spelling of a name he mentioned. Rice pauses, then chuckles before answering, “Well I guess you could Google it.”
Rice laughs because he just finished telling the reporter how much the Google Data Center in Mayes County, Oklahoma, means to his region and his university. “When I travel and people see my luggage tag, they say, ‘Oh, that’s the home of Google.’”
Since the 2007 announcement that Google would construct a data center in Mayes County, the company has invested more than $700,000 in the area. In addition to employing more than 100 people, Google also has awarded nearly $800,000 in grants to Oklahoma schools and nonprofits.
One important — Rice might say “invaluable” — contribution Google made to the area is its emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). “They really brought this to us early on and made us more focused on STEM and the impact we’ll see years down the road,” he says.
“Rogers State University has been a great partner for our STEM initiatives in Northeast Oklahoma. They’ve brought to the table expertise, excellent facilities and a shared passion for STEM education,” says Andrew Silvestri, Google head of public policy and community affairs for Oklahoma.
The Aero Games
One of these volunteer efforts now in its fifth year is Aero Games — a joint effort between Rogers State and Google that enables middle and high school students to participate in hands-on competitions involving gliders, wind-powered rockets, remote-controlled helicopters and other wind- and aerospace-related objects.
“The Aero Games gave us the opportunity to showcase students from around the state who are learning valuable skills and furthering their interests in STEM. At Google, we are committed to motivating students to participate and excel in STEM and applying those principles to exciting and engaging career paths. The Aero Games provide an excellent avenue for doing just that,” Silvestri says.
For Rogers State, the games bring potential students to campus. “This is where you plant the seeds for future careers,” Rice says.
Besides the hands-on activities, Aero Games also brings in speakers.
“Keep in mind,” Rice says, “that Northeast Oklahoma has a lot of poverty and at-risk students. Speakers open their minds to the potential that’s out there when they see individuals that have made it in the STEM field who are just like the students who are coming through our doors.”
Leading By Example
One such speaker is Tracy Drain, a flight systems engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It so happens that Drain grew up in Neosho, Missouri, which is just across the state line from Northeast Oklahoma. To Rice’s mind, students will surmise that if someone from Neosho can go that far, then so can they. In addition to speaking, Drain teamed up with a Rogers State professor to take some students on international field trips. And she opened the door for some Rogers State students to visit the Jet Propulsion Lab.
What an inspiration for students, Rice says, to know where she started and where she is today.