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MinnWest Spurs Development Through STEM Education Initiatives

The team at MinnWest Technology Campus has some pretty aggressive goals when it comes to science and technology. For starters, they see their Willmar, MN-based institution someday becoming a world-class location for companies to grow and collaborate for the advancement of science and technology. They also strive to shape the region where their campus is located, as well as the country and the world as a whole.

Thanks to a new grant, MinnWest will get a few steps closer to its goal this summer. The campus has received $202,500 that it plans to use to launch several new education initiatives.

Awarded by the Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace, through its Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED) initiative, the grant will help fund the hiring of two engineering interns for Nova-Tech Engineering and two biology interns for Epitopix (both are companies with facilities located on campus).

A portion of the money will fund a joint project of St. Cloud State University and Ridgewater College. The project will use a new, mobile science education lab from St. Cloud State to provide training for 25 science teachers in K-12 schools, according to Tim Miller of Development Partners, a business that contracts with MinnWest. He said the mobile lab will introduce about 25 teachers to methodologies designed to help students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. "There are a lot more jobs out there other than engineers," said Miller. "The mobile lab will go around the entire state, spreading the word about these types of careers."

Launched in 2006, the WIRED initiative stresses the critical role talent development plays in creating effective regional economic development strategies. In going beyond traditional "worker preparation" models, WIRED brings together state, local, and federal entities; academic institutions (including K-12, community colleges, and universities); investment groups; foundations; and business and industry to address the challenges associated with building a globally competitive and prepared workforce.

Through the WIRED program, the Employment and Training Administration (ETA) currently provides 39 regions nationwide with funding and assistance to implement strategies designed to drive the transformation of regional economies. It also provides workforce development, economic development and education systems that support the economy.

The new infusion will help MinnWest and its collaborators do just that. Located on the site of the former Willmar Regional Treatment Center, MinnWest currently houses 20 technology and support companies on its campus. Focused on promoting, nurturing, and accommodating the biosciences and technology communities in the Greater Willmar Lakes Area, the campus develops programs, initiatives, and facilities designed to create new jobs, companies, and investment in the region.

Miller said the new grant dovetails off of a $2.5 million project that MinnWest has been working on for about 18 months, the Mid-Central Biosciences Center (MCBC). A collaborative effort between MinnWest, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, and the City of Willmar, the MCBC will be equipped as a bioscience laboratory and research center and is expected to open sometime next year.

"The MCBC will be a core facility where businesses that are located on campus, as well as other bioscience companies in the region, can access world-class lab and research facilities," said Miller. That's where the new $202,500 grant comes in. "Build a facility like this," he said, "and you have to get some activities rolling within its four walls."

Those activities include applied genomics training for 18 students (not interns), who will be sent out to "work in the real-world work environment," learning skills related to the bioscience field. Within the MCBC itself, Miller said the grant is funding the development of an advanced classroom that will allow for extended learning, and that includes videoconferencing, sound, and other state of the art equipment.

MinnWest, which received the grant money about six weeks ago, is currently recruiting for internships that it plans to fill by the summer. Development of the mobile lab is also underway, as is the advanced classroom that will be housed within MCBC.

Miller is enthused at the progress being made at MinnWest, which opened the doors to its campus to local companies a little more than three years ago. "It's great to be able to bring together the needs of the state, the colleges and universities, and private business under one umbrella in an effective manner," said Miller. "Goals are actually being executed, and we're proud to be part of that. Going forward, these initiatives are going to be very important for the state of Minnesota."

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