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GCU president touts new STEM program as part of White House initiative

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WASHINGTON – Grand Canyon University President Brian Mueller was a long way from inner-city Phoenix on Thursday, but it was not far from his mind as he talked about his school’s new STEM program.

“We are especially targeting students from inner cities that don’t think that kind of career is available to them,” said Mueller, in Washington to tout a program to help those students get involved and succeed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – fields.

Mueller was one of hundreds of college leaders from across the country – and at least two from Arizona – outlining hundreds of different programs at the second White House College Opportunity Summit.

The White House initiative, unveiled in January by President Barack Obama, encourages colleges and universities to create programs that assure students have access to higher education, are prepared to succeed and are helped through to graduation. Schools are encouraged to target low-income students and STEM majors in particular.

Grand Canyon joins Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona, which made commitments during the first round of the program in January, when 140 schools signed on.

Thursday’s daylong meeting boosted the number of such proposals above 600 nationally, according to the White House, and featured speeches by the president and first lady, Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“I want to make sure we lead the world in education once again,” Obama said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by the White House. “Not just because it’s right to help more young people chase their dreams, but because it’s critical to our economic future.”

Mueller agreed that higher education can have a big role in the economy, and pointed to his university’s location in the inner city as a tool for the state’s economic growth.

“We’re using Grand Canyon University to be kind of a catalyst to stimulate the economic recovery of the west side,” Mueller said. “It’s a part of Phoenix that needs help in economic revitalization.”

Mueller said he has high hopes the school’s STEM Scholars program can benefit the greater Phoenix community, and that he hopes the program will reach 10 school districts and 650 students by the end of next year.

He said he is particularly excited about the opportunities that the STEM Scholars program will provide for students, especially low-income students.

“Hopefully, they will choose something in engineering or computer science or information technology or biology that allows them to get in to a career that will lead to a high-paying job and a successful life,” he said of the program’s prospective participants.

Grand Canyon’s STEM Scholars program will be available to high school juniors and seniors with at least a 3.25 GPA who show a proficiency in math and science. Once accepted, students can receive up to 32 college credits – for free – while still in high school, where they will be exposed to career opportunities in STEM fields.

“They can get enrolled in college and complete a degree in engineering or computer science and information technology in three years, which makes it less expensive,” Mueller said. “It makes it more efficient from a time perspective.”

The STEM Scholars program is being piloted in the Peoria Unified School District and Sunrise Mountain High School and is scheduled to start in summer 2015.

Those in attendance at the summit, including Mueller and ASU President Michael Crow, have committed to such actions as starting K-12 partnerships, investing in school counselors, ensuring college readiness and more to increase the number of college graduates and increase STEM education.

Mueller said the summit has sparked a “collaborative circle” among educational leaders in the country.

This collaboration, he said, is fundamental to getting people to think more about education “from preschool, through kindergarten, through elementary school, through high school and then on to college.”