Precious seemed nervous, and who could blame her? The 13-year-old eighth-grader was standing before 14 middle and high school students and six adults in a classroom in Southern Oregon University’s Cox Hall, attempting to sell an idea in 30 seconds or less.

It's called an elevator pitch, and it wasn’t easy.

The audience, which on Wednesday morning included representatives from 11 Southern Oregon high schools, stared at the young "chief science officer" as she delivered her mock plea for help. The speech started out fine but lost a little steam about halfway through, and she wrapped it up with a somewhat halfhearted, “I’m wondering if you could help me with some funding maybe.”

To her left, Dana Preston, the membership and business development director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, looked down at the stopwatch on her phone and announced that the pitch took 25 seconds, the third in a row to beat the 30-second time limit. The students clapped as Precious (her last name has been omitted at the request of the organization for which she volunteers) took her seat.

The students, including three from Ashland High School, were participating in the first Chief Science Officer Leadership Institute, a two-day event organized by the Southern Oregon STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) Hub, one of 11 regional STEM hubs whose goal is to increase STEM outreach and community engagement. All 22 students who signed up had already assumed the role of CSO at their school, and starting Tuesday morning were sitting at desks learning how to be a STEM leaders in classes with titles like “Vision Setting,” “Sharing Science” and “Public Speaking and Panels.” 

North and South Medford high schools, Grants Pass High and Mazama High were all represented, as was McLaughlin Middle School.

Wednesday morning’s session was titled “How to Wrangle People and Stuff” and covered, as the title indicated, the most sure-fire, efficient, professional way to separate potential donors from their wallets. Preston, who like all the guest speakers at the event volunteered her time, also shared tips on networking and team building. After one student’s practice pitch, Preston reminded the class how important it is to finish with confidence and a bold request for a follow-up.

“Assume that you’ve got them excited,” she said, before delivering her own version of the always-challenging closing: “Thanks so much for the opportunity to share this with you. Can I set up a time to speak with you again?”

Later, Preston covered how and when to offer a business card — every student received a box stuffed with their very own — and how to properly format a follow-up email. Tip: you probably shouldn’t open with “Dear.” Preston’s not a big fan of contractions, either. Instead of “you’ve” just spell out both words: “you have.”

“I’m really excited to see future generations go and learn tools and skills that are real life that they can take on into their professional world or take back into their own communities, their schools,” Preston said, when asked why she volunteered. “So if I can help be a part of sharing things that I’ve picked up along the way, tools that have been useful to me, I love to have the opportunity to share.”

The hope, explained Oregon CSO program director Summer Brandon, is that the students will leave SOU with a broader understanding of STEM-related career paths and become STEM ambassadors at their schools. There is a push nationally to increase the number of students — and female students in particular — pursuing STEM-related degrees and careers

Ashland High incoming junior Baylor Wiggins, 16, said he benefited mightily from simply networking with other CSOs and has plans to expand Ashland High’s STEM program to the middle school.

“So, by the time they get to the high school they’ll be interested in STEM, too,” said Wiggins, who’s in the National Honor Society. “And something I want to do eventually when I go to college is study abroad and spread STEM throughout Mexico or Spain. I think that’d be cool.”

Alex Westrick, also an incoming junior at AHS, said the leadership institute was an opportunity for her to learn how to increase STEM opportunities at her own school, something she said needs to be done.

“I’ve been participating in a lot of STEM, particularly science activities, at Ashland High School and the middle school as well for a long time, and so I’ve seen some areas that need improvement,” Westrick said. “I saw some areas that I wanted to change and some programs that I wanted to implement. And also, I’m just a huge science nerd and I kind of want to up the ante, you know?”

Westrick went on to describe her vision for a tutoring program that would pair high school students with middle schoolers who need help in STEM subjects. She’s also considering organizing a science fair and recruiting a small team of volunteers who could work to bolster the garden at Willow Wind.

The instruction she received during the leadership institute, she said, has inspired some new approaches to those ambitions, and she's anxious to get started.

“It’s been so helpful,” she said. “Just meeting all the other CSOs and hearing their ideas has been helpful, and everything they’ve given us — so many helpful tools and strategies to make things happen.”

The institute was organized by CSO program coordinator Allison Sweeney, a Talent resident and AmeriCorps Vista volunteer who works for the Southern Oregon Education Service District in Medford.

Sweeney said her challenge is to make the institute sustainable so that it comes back year after year. So far, so good. Planning for this first one began about a year ago, she said, and after navigating a few bumps in the road Tuesday morning the institute ran smoothly.

Watching the students blossom and put to use some of the skills they’d only recently learned was, for Sweeney, the highlight of the event. She spent much of her time in the shadows orchestrating a team of assistants and keeping things running on time, but was able to catch some of Preston’s presentation. What Sweeney saw reminded her what the leadership institute is all about.

“I actually just got goose bumps in the ‘How to Wrangle People and Stuff’ because the first two CSOs who went up there are two of our more shy and reserved ones,” Sweeney said. “They were the first ones to go up and they went up there and did awesome. Even though it’s been two days I can already recognize their personalities and I knew it was something that they wouldn’t really want to do. So seeing that was awesome, and then also just hearing them do their elevator pitches.

"I was like, ‘Wow, this is happening, this is here, finally, after a year’s worth of work.’ It’s just great.”

— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.