Umatilla superintendent to join Merkley for State of the Union Address

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley announced Friday that Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe will accompany him as his guest to Washington, D.C., for the 2015 State of the Union Address, Tuesday.

Merkley selected Sipe as his guest in recognition of the school district’s efforts to build a successful robotics program and for her promotion of STEM education.

Sipe said she first met with Merkley in 2009-10, and she found Merkley to be an open-minded listener who really cares about education.

In July 2011, at a congressional field hearing, Merkley talked about his efforts to increase STEM education in kindergarten through 12th grade. Sipe presented at the hearing and spoke with him after the event about the impact that a robotics team would have on the Umatilla School District and how rural school districts are largely left out of those types of activities. During the event, students from Portland also gave a presentation on their robotics program.

”I was blown away by the passion the kids had for that program, by the skills they were building,” Sipe said. “I developed what I can only refer to as metro envy. I could see that students in metro areas had access to these programs, but I was concerned that our kids in rural areas wouldn’t get the preparation they deserve in STEM education, which I believe is critical to our nation’s future.”

Sipe said she shared her concerns with Merkley after the event, and he was instrumental in connecting her with some people in FIRST robotics, as well as locating some grants to start a program in Umatilla.

“Through Sen. Merkley’s encouragement and assistance, our FIRST Robotics team was born,” she said.

In 2012, the high school started a team that Sipe and her husband, Kyle, coached. The next year, team members made it to the world finals. Then last year, they placed 57th in their division at the world championships. Merkley visited the team in November 2014 to congratulate them on all their accomplishments.

“Umatilla’s robotics team is a home-grown Oregon success story to be incredibly proud of, and I’m excited to honor Umatilla’s success by bringing Superintendent Heidi Sipe to the State of the Union this year,” Merkley said in a press release. “One of the biggest challenges our country faces today is how to ensure that our kids are getting a strong STEM education that will prepare them for the global economy and help keep good, middle-class jobs here in the United States.”

Merkley said the work that Sipe, her students and Umatilla community members have put into building the program is creating huge returns.

“Getting our students engaged in STEM projects and providing them with hands-on experience is exactly what we should be doing, and exactly what this program provides,” he said in the press release. “I’m thrilled that she’ll be here in the Capitol as the President lays out his vision to take on these and many other challenges.”

Sipe said Umatilla students now have access to STEM classes during the day and after school and can take dual credit courses through Eastern Promise to help them leave high school with both training and college certifications, participate in an after-school program focused specifically on STEM education and take online computer and technology classes that have spurred a state-wide effort for job seekers.

“It is all very overwhelming, to be honest,” she said of Umatilla’s STEM education program success. “All I was ever trying to do is just create opportunities for our students in Umatilla. I didn’t expect that the excitement would grow beyond borders of our town. This gives me such hope for our region. I think eastern Oregon will grow more and more with STEM, and I think it will become a destination for STEM. I am proud of our whole region.”

Sipe said students in Umatilla now have amazing opportunities, and it all started with the nudge from Merkley in 2011. She said she is incredibly grateful for all he has done for the Umatilla community and is honored to join him in Washington, D.C., for the State of the Union speech.

Sipe said she received the invitation during a meeting which continued for the rest of the afternoon.

“I hung up the phone and had to go back into that meeting,” she said. “It was just torturous sitting through the meeting when I had all these questions developing.”

She said during a meeting break two hours later she called Merkley’s staff member back.

“I phoned her back, and I had to ask, ‘Is this a joke? Is this real?’ ” she said. “It did not possibly seem that it could be real.”

Sipe said she will be paying her own way to Washington, D.C., so her husband and children can also attend. She said, while she attends the State of the Union festivities, her children and husband will be meeting with Susan Lexer, Merkley’s policy adviser on health and education and talk with her about robotics and opportunities for STEM education in rural areas.

As a family, they will also tour various places including the White House, the Capitol building and the Library of Congress.

“The whole experience, it is just phenomenal,” Sipe said. “I just wish that others could join me in the experience because it doesn’t seem right that it is just me going. The honor is mine because of the work of so many others. I wish that everyone could go and celebrate as a community because Umatilla has really embraced STEM.”

The State of the Union will be delivered at 6 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday.