As NETL’s new STEM education and outreach specialist, dedicated to boosting the Lab’s community impact and improve educational outcomes in West Virginia, Kinsey Walker aims to expand student participation in this vitally important subset across the state through unity among program providers.
A native of South Charleston, Walker attended the College of Wooster in rural Ohio before pursuing her master’s degree at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee to study public policy and education. Before joining NETL, she worked as a classroom instructor, teaching kindergarten through fifth grade and later grades 5-8. She also worked as an adjunct professor teaching courses in social science, chemistry, biology, engineering, and computer science majors at the University of Charleston.
In addition to teaching, she helped establish teams that created operation structures and staff at new schools in Tennessee and Mississippi. This position is dedicated to ensuring the school’s day-to-day workings run smoothly so administrators can focus on school culture and curriculum.
When she returned to the Mountain State, Walker got some help and experience working with a nonprofit organization dedicated to attracting and retaining younger talent in the state.
“When I moved back to West Virginia from Nashville, it was actually really hard to find something that would get me to stay, but I was given an amazing opportunity with Generation West Virginia to create the first professional fellowship program in the state,” she said. “It was something I never would’ve had the chance to do otherwise and hopefully something that will make it easier for everyone else to find a career path in West Virginia. Building that up was really rewarding.”
Generation West Virginia’s fellowship program matches a worker with an employer in need of their skillset. For a year, the fellowship recipients work four days a week but spend their Fridays conducting volunteer work for a nonprofit in their community that aligns with their talents and interests. Walker said this experience is particularly enriching because it helps the participants find a sense of community and belonging that goes beyond simply coming to work and going home.
Through connections made at Generation West Virginia, Walker learned of the STEM outreach position at NETL in Morgantown. Sensing a match between her own experience in education and serving in a state-wide nonprofit, she applied to NETL and joined the Lab in late 2019.
“I’ve been trying to get back into education for a long time,” she said. “I’m a listener, so as far as my responsibilities, it’s all about what is needed. A lot of that, I think, is getting all the people who are doing STEM educational programs on the same page. I think I’m in a unique position to work on that.”
Although West Virginia has plenty of educational challenges including broadband service issues and long commutes for students, there are a lot of high-quality STEM opportunities in local communities, such as Morgantown Area RoboticS (MARS), Boy & Girl Scout troops, the state’s universities with their accompanying extension services, and 4-H, which was quick to embrace STEM education principles.
Walker explained her goal to create a space for programs already doing great work to collaborate and share resources, rather than compete for them. Ensuring the STEM experience reaches as many students as possible is another priority.
“We are all stakeholders in our state’s educational outcomes and building up groups of collaborators has really helped regions around the country similar to West Virginia,” she said. “I’m hopeful to work on this within this state over the coming years.”
Walker said she plans to use events such as the West Virginia Science Bowl as an opportunity to connect NETL researchers with STEM program managers, not just for students living in the Morgantown area but throughout the whole state.
She said having a dedicated STEM education and outreach coordinator to support West Virginia is a win-win scenario for all involved. With Walker in Morgantown, her Pittsburgh-based counterpart can devote more time to serving the southwest Pennsylvania region and less time traveling. Furthermore, a coordinator in West Virginia is in a much better position to put a face to their name while networking.
“It’s just much more practical for someone based in West Virginia, who’s grown up here and can build relationships in person, to participate in outreach events and serve schools across a wider region,” Walker noted. “I’m excited to work in communities that raised me and were part of where most of my learning took place.”
Moving forward into 2020, Walker said the viewpoints and experience of her team will be a great help. She also plans to network with statewide organizations beyond Morgantown that can help further STEM outreach such as the NASA and NOAA operations outside Fairmont, Generation West Virginia, the Robert C. Byrd Institute in Huntington, and Charleston’s Clay Center.
Walker said building effective access points to teacher training session is another priority to ensure that NETL supporting the most valuable resource in STEM education, the state’s educators. Ultimately, she said West Virginia’s dedicated teachers are the key to seeing this vision through. After all, she said it was her teachers that inspired her to embark on her career path. She keeps in touch with them to the present day.