Editor’s Note: “The Economic Development Side” originally appears in the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce’s weekly member e-newsletter. It is written by Rhonda Dishner, the Economic Development Alliance’s executive assistant.

When a series of airplanes takes a Pine Bluff resident nearly four thousand miles north to Alaska, it’s expected that the weather will be cold. Especially in January. But imagine the surprise of that traveler who’s experiencing 30 ºF in Anchorage and finds out it’s dropping to 7 ºF for the folks back home. With about five inches of snow on the ground.

That was one topic of conversation recently when Caleb McMahon, director of economic development for the Alliance, called in to the office to report briefly while on a fact-finding trip regarding a notable educational program. Jokes about the weather flip-flop, however, did not overshadow his enthusiasm for the information he was gathering.

McMahon was part of a 10-person local team chosen to find out more about the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program—or ANSEP—at a “hands-on and experiential” conference supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). According to its promotional materials, ANSEP is attaining remarkable success toward its objective of effecting “systemic change in the hiring patterns of Alaska Natives in science and engineering.”

As its name makes clear, ANSEP is preparing students from middle school through high school (and with summer “bridge” programs) for in-demand careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It is also building a national model for excellence in higher education. In fact, it’s doing such an exceptional job in inspiring students that ANSEP received a NSF grant to spread the good news of its work and how it can be implemented elsewhere.

After a competitive application process, UAPB here was one of nine educational institutions nationwide selected to bring a team to the Jan. 17-20 “dissemination conference” in Alaska. UAPB faculty and representatives of the Pine Bluff School District made up most of the group. McMahon was invited by UAPB to participate, per the grant, as a local community economic developer. All related expenses were paid by the NSF grant.

The conference schedule was grueling, McMahon reported later, because there was so much to take in.

“ANSEP gets students—many from isolated villages—interested in science and engineering from an early age and follows them throughout their school careers,” he explained. “With a solid STEM foundation, by the time they reach ninth grade they start taking college courses. This kind of intensive training for university academics is producing engineers by age 20. It’s truly amazing.”

“I believe all of us on the trip hope we can somehow reproduce the program here in Jefferson County,” McMahon added.

He would also like to take a personal vacation to Alaska now. “I want to make a return visit to enjoy the awesome scenery and wildlife,” he said. “Maybe some summer when the temperature in Arkansas is climbing above 90 degrees.”