New K-12 engagement position focuses on partnerships between Penn State, schools

Amanda SmithAmanda Smith has been named director of K-12 Engagement for Penn State Outreach, a new position focused on expanding partnerships between students and teachers and the higher education world.

Smith, who began her career teaching middle and high school science, has served as STEM outreach and engagement liaison for the Penn State Center for Science and the Schools since 2014.

Pamela Driftmier, executive director of Professional and Community Engagement (PACE ) for Penn State Outreach, said Smith will work with schools, state government, and business and community leaders to provide leadership and advocacy of Outreach’s K-12 strategy across the University and with education partners.

“She will identify new and enhance existing opportunities that strongly align and advance the impact of Outreach with K-12 educators, administrators, parents, and children,” Driftmier said. “Her leadership will be critical as we face the challenges of preparing our students for their future roles as leaders and engaged citizens in our communities.”

Smith will focus on the areas of STEM, social justice, wellness, future readiness, and civic engagement, Driftmier said.

As a high school biology teacher in Virginia, Smith said she was known as “the field trip teacher,” taking students on dozens of excursions to visit businesses, hospitals, and research labs to learn about career opportunities.

“They’d say, ‘I want to be an engineer,’ but they didn’t know what an engineer did,” she said. “I wanted them to experience as much as they could outside of their community.”

In her new position, which begins March 1, Smith will work to encourage new initiatives with schools across the state and broaden the reach of Penn State’s hundreds of existing initiatives, expanding on her outreach work at the Center for Science and the Schools and as executive director of a nationally recognized STEM Ecosystem, ENGINE of Central PA. She hopes to streamline the process by which schools and the university interact, and to make sure Penn State is being effective in addressing schools’ needs and goals.

“I’m hoping with this new role we can help every group that works with K-12, and harness these relationships across the University,” she said.

For example, due to the pandemic, many education programs found flexible ways to deliver programming to teachers and students from afar. Smith said she hopes that as students return to in-school experiences, Penn State can explore innovative hybrid methods to reach schools. She wants to look at how K-12 students can be involved in engaged scholarship experiences and civic engagement, and expand relevant STEM research occurring on campuses directly to the schools using resources such as mobile labs.

Smith expects to work with Outreach units such as WPSU Penn State, the Nittany AI Alliance, the Readiness Institute, Shaver’s Creek, and PACE, as well as departments and organizations across the University.

Smith, who grew up outside Pittsburgh, said she is passionate about increasing opportunities for students, especially in rural and urban areas that may have fewer resources. She also wants to find ways for students to tie their scholarship to problem-solving in their own communities.

“My goal is that every kid can understand that they have limitless potential and possibilities — but we have to provide them equitable access to resources and opportunities,” she said.