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Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
September 24, 2012 | Tom Ballard

Marilyn Roddy truly passionate about new STEMspark initiative

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following interview with Marilyn Roddy occurred before yesterday’s announcement of the new brand for the East Tennessee STEM Education Hub. STEMspark, as the initiative is now known, is the 13-county regional “hub” that is part of the more than $500 million “Race to the Top” grant that Tennessee won in 2010.)

Marilyn Roddy comes by her passion for education and workforce development naturally.

Her father is a Professor Emeritus in electrical engineering from The Ohio State University. Her mother is a former teacher at an Ohio community college. She majored in education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She and her husband have two daughters in college and a third headed to college after graduation from Webb School.

So, it’s only natural that Roddy would agree to take on the challenge of serving as the first full-time Project Manager for STEMspark, the East Tennessee STEM Education Hub. STEMspark is the 13-county regional “hub” that is part of the more than $500 million “Race to the Top” grant that Tennessee won in 2010.

In a recent interview with, Roddy was just in the fifth week of her new role and admitted that she is “drinking constantly from a fire hose.” She was not wearing sneakers during the interview, but one suspects she will be doing so, at least figuratively, as she keeps the pace and meets the goals that she sees for STEMspark.

The STEMspark hub is a partnership of educational, business, scientific, research institutions, and community partners that was organized to promote and support high-quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in a 13-county region. It is our regional component of the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network, which has “platform schools” that connect the various partners and promote best practices. The new L&N STEM Academy is this region’s platform school.

When we sat down with Roddy about 10 days ago, one of her major upcoming events was yesterday’s (September 24) launch of the STEMspark East Tennessee Hub. Launched by Dr. Jim McIntyre, Knox County Superintendent, and Deputy Commissioner of Education Dr. Kathleen Airhart, the event presented an opportunity for the new Project Manager to emphasize the “hub and spoke” nature of her new responsibilities.

“We have 13 counties,” she notes. “It’s not Knox-centric; it’s about the whole region. One of my early priorities is to make sure people understand this is a regional initiative.”

The region includes Anderson, Blount, Campbell, Claiborne, Grainger, Jefferson, Knox, Loudon, Morgan, Roane, Scott, Sevier and Union Counties. Each of the 13 county school districts is involved as well as the city school systems in Alcoa, Lenoir City, and Maryville, Episcopal School of Knoxville, and Webb School.

Like any successful effort, Roddy notes that STEMspark is relying on great partners, starting with the Knox County school system that is hosting the hub. The University of Tennessee and the three community colleges that serve the region – Pellissippi State, Roane State and Walters State – are key partners as are organizations as diverse as Innovation Valley Inc., Oak Ridge Associated Universities and the Metropolitan Drug Commission.

“Not all of the (educational) entities have funding for specific projects in this initial phase, but all will benefit from the work done at the platform, or laboratory school (L&N Academy),” Roddy explained.

Roddy explained that STEMspark has received $850,000 for the period that ends June 30, 2014. Prior to coming on board, the initiative was one of several roles that L&N Academy Principal Becky Ashe performed, a person whom Roddy praised for the foundation that she built.

As Roddy approaches her new role, she views it as similar to the teachings of her Episcopal religion. “We walk two rails,” she says. In the case of the STEMspark project, she has to understand two cultures – business and its needs and education and its realities. Her bottom line, however, is impact.

“I want to make sure these federal dollars touch as many people as possible,” she says emphatically. That means everything from understanding the “mission critical” impact of STEM on our national defense and security to “inspiring STEM students to become entrepreneurs.”

“Our intent is that everything done under the grant is scalable,” Roddy explains.

STEMspark is one of five regional hubs currently operational across Tennessee as part of the statewide initiative being coordinated by Battelle Memorial Institute. The others are Northeast Tennessee, housed at East Tennessee State University; Southeast Tennessee, housed at the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga; Upper Cumberland, coordinated by Tennessee Technological University; and Middle Tennessee, housed at Metro Nashville Public Schools. The last region will be West Tennessee.

In her first four weeks, Roddy had already been to events in Chattanooga, Johnson City, Nashville and Tullahoma where she was continuing her non-stop “drinking from a fire hose.”

“I can take ideas they are doing (in other regions) and use them here,” she says.

Roddy is a natural networker. With that natural tendency and a lifetime passion for education and workforce development, it is clear that she intends to make a difference in the opportunities available to everyone in the region through the STEMspark initiative.


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