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TRAER | The lowly mealworm -- with its six legs, tan abdomen and black tips -- kept not just third-graders but also Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds in rapt attention.

Iowa State University Insect Zoo education coordinator Ginny Mitchell explained the critter's behaviors and challenged students to think about why the mealworm developed those attributes.

But it was Rosie, the Chilean rose hair tarantula, that was the real celebrity in Spencer Karr’s third-grade classroom at North Tama Elementary School Tuesday afternoon.

Neither students nor Reynolds rejected the opportunity to touch the fuzzy arachnid, which earned exclamations from kids like “adorable,” “wow” and “awesome.” Even Reynolds was impressed with the lesson.

“This is amazing. This is really interesting,” Reynolds told Mitchell before being whisked off to another classroom to see students and mentors in action on their fourth science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, Expert Day.

During a one-hour tour led by STEM Education Award winner and North Tama teacher Lisa Chizek, Reynolds engaged students from kindergarten through sixth-grade on a variety of STEM projects, from driving a rover on Mars to constructing a ramp to building a solar-powered vehicle.

Reynolds has been a longtime advocate for STEM in Iowa and co-chairs the governor’s STEM Advisory Council in the state, so she proved right at home during the tour through STEM exercises at North Tama.

She sided with fifth-grader Kierra Dronebarger in preferring to give directions on operating a simulation Mars rover rather than driving the vehicle, though she congratulated remote control operator Michael Bell for his work in navigating the rocky terrain.

After the tour, Reynolds noted how engaged the students were focused on their respective projects, undistracted by the lieutenant governor or anyone else.

“I think if you noticed anything, they weren’t aware that we were the room. They are so engaged in what they’re doing, and I think that touches every single child,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the Legislature has supported the public-private STEM initiative since its founding three years ago with $5.2 million, most of which has been matched by private partners.

“It’s so important to their future, and to keep Iowa competitive, and about our human talent pool,” Reynolds said. “What we’re seeing in schools, it’s becoming systemic, and it’s becoming a culture of a community.”

About two-dozen people from the three state universities and local businesses, and others, served as experts during the STEM Expert Day.

Chizek said many of the experts have returned from previous years and some have taken time off from work to volunteer their time to participate.

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