BEAVERTON — STEM is a buzzword often rattled off in educational circles. But if executed with inclusion and intentionality, it allows students with diverse backgrounds and strengths to probe concepts deeply, see learning in a broader social context and take ownership of the educational process.

That was a guiding view of a Jan. 31 conference at Valley Catholic Middle School here. More than 125 private and public school educators from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Colorado gathered at the school for an inaugural conference sponsored by Cognia, an organization providing certifications, assessments and consulting for schools.

The aim of the gathering, which featured a welcome from Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle, was to help educators learn to effectively apply and improve science, technology, education and mathematics instruction.

Valley Catholic staff shared the ways their school integrates STEM, “so we can all collaborate and grow together,” said Jennifer Gfroerer, principal of the middle school. Valley Catholic was the first school in the Pacific Northwest to earn a STEM certification from Cognia.

Gfroerer said the recurring message at the conference was: “Get at the heart of what you are teaching and adjust it to the student in front of you.

“STEM is not a formula; it is about the students driving their learning and using multiple concepts to form a scaffolding that allows them to go deeper.”

The conference began with a keynote presentation by Michelle Zimmerman, an author and the executive director of a private Christian school in Renton, Washington. Zimmerman emphasized experiential learning and the role of empathy in STEM learning. She also discussed the need for building resilience by helping children learn from failures and challenges.

There were breakout sessions that covered a range of topics, including the importance of helping students find connections between academic subjects.

The event also emphasized the role of community partners in a successful STEM program. Valley Catholic seventh graders, for example, turned to experts in the community for their Future City — a project where students research and build a model city. During one outing they visited Clean Water Services and received a tour of the plant. Employees of the water management utility then served as mentors to answer questions that arose during the project.

Such partnerships enable students “to dream off of ideas grounded in facts,” said Gfroerer.

More than a dozen of Valley Catholic’s community partners, among them the Oregon National Primate Research Center and Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, shared their work at the gathering through presentations or display tables.

STEM education is not isolated to just a class or a school, Gfroerer said. “By design students are reaching out to the community, looking at the greater good and at multiples perspectives, considering ethics and working with others who aren’t like-minded.”

It’s an approach, she added, that “fully embodies what we do as a Catholic school, where we are called to work for the common good and value each person.”

Hosting the conference “was an honor,” added the principal. “It was exciting to be the connecting piece for these educators trying to walk the same path and build STEM education.”