The Sunnyside Unified School District will partner with the University of Arizona’s Bio5 Institute to identify future scientists, mathematicians and engineers in the district.

Sunnyside will take part in the Cultivating Diverse Talent in STEM project, which aims to find talented students from economically challenged school districts and propel them into science-, math- and technology-related careers.

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The school district’s Governing Board approved the agreement at its Oct. 22 board meeting.

The UA’s colleges of education, pharmacy and science are also collaborating with the Bio5 Institute and Sunnyside.

A group of principal investigators from those colleges, as well as from the Tuba City Unified School District in Northern Arizona, received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to pay for the program, said Uwe Hilgert, director of STEM training at Bio5.

“The intent of the project is to increase the number of students that are from population groups which are underrepresented in the sciences,” said Marti Lindsey, outreach director for the center of toxicology.

Sunnyside’s two high schools, as well as three high schools that serve predominantly Native American students in Northern Arizona, will take part in the three-year program.

In each of those years, the program will identify a group of outstanding high school students through a series of hands-on tests and projects, and give them the opportunity to attend UA’s Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) summer high school internship program.

School district and program officials hope the project will identify students who have a talent for one of the STEM fields but may not excel on standardized tests.

That includes “kids who have aptitude that, maybe through traditional pencil-and-paper tests may not always surface, but yet they’re creative problem solvers,” said Jan Vesely, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Sunnyside. “We want to find kids who may fall through the cracks.”

Beginning later this month, all high school juniors in Sunnyside will participate in a hands-on assessment project during one of their science classes, where teachers will measure their problem-solving and collaboration skills, Vesely said.

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The students who score the highest on the assessment will be invited to a Saturday session where they’ll likely take part in a robotics project.

From there, the highest-achieving students will earn a slot in the KEYS program, where they’ll have the opportunity to work with UA researchers.

Sunnyside began working with program officials about a year ago.

Although the long-term goal is to find more diverse students to eventually work in the STEM fields, the district hopes to develop similar assessments to evaluate all of its high school students and help them with career choices, Vesely said.

“When this project is done, what we’re hoping is that the university is able to develop and streamline what assessments are the most valid and reliable in determining STEM aptitude,” she said.