STEM makes a splash in St. Vrain Valley Schools

mkaiser August 27, 2013 0
STEM makes a splash in St. Vrain Valley Schools

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The statistics are clear: with the high growth rates in the past decade projected to continue, STEM jobs will play an increasingly prominent role in the workforce of the future.

To do its part to better prepare students to work in or interact with careers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and to effectively solve tomorrow’s problems, St. Vrain
Valley School District (SVVSD) has emerged as not only a player in the field of STEM education, but a
national leader.

“When you look at predictions, they’re saying in 25 years, 75 percent of new jobs will be STEM-related,” said Regina Renaldi, assistant superintendent of priority programs, SVVSD. “You don’t have to tell (students) what (they’re) going to be, but if we at least expose them to those kinds of future job opportunities, we’re helping kids to be ready for their futures. I am looking to make certain the kids in St. Vrain have every opportunity and then some that kids would have in the world around us.”

With forward-thinking vision and plans, SVVSD has landed some significant federal grants that have allowed the district to open its doors to offering STEM opportunities throughout an entire feeder system within the district, and even beyond.

When SVVSD was awarded the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant in 2010, it was the top scoring applicant, placing first of the 49 grant recipients (out of 1700 applicants), giving the district what Renaldi calls “a big start” in growing STEM in the district. The i3 grant led to the much larger, $16 million Race to the Top (RTTT) federal grant, a four-year grant effective  January 2013 through January 2017. RTTT is completely STEM-focused.

Spark! Discovery Preschool is housed in the old Frederick Elementary building.

Spark! Discovery Preschool is housed in the old Frederick Elementary building.

The focus school/school of choice initiative has been strong in SVVSD, and includes a STEM Academy at Skyline High School. STEM Academy’s mission is to “help students realize their potential for success in STEM careers by supporting their exploration of STEM related fields, by encouraging the development of 21st century skills, and by providing them with a head start in pursuing their post-secondary education.”

Through RTTT, the entire Skyline feeder system – from preschool on up – is in the process of adapting a STEM-based curriculum, with STEM coordinators at each school.

“Not just any student, all students in all of our elementary schools in the whole Skyline feeder,” Renaldi said. “Kids will be exposed all the way through the system and staffs will be aligned all the way through so that they’re promoting and extending the thinking for those kiddos.”

STEM curriculum is also being introduced to Indian Peaks and Northridge elementary schools, with plans to expand STEM through those feeder systems as well.

Another piece of the STEM puzzle aims to more smoothly bridge the gap to career and college readiness through the new Innovation Center at Skyline, where students do actual work and get paid for it, bringing together industry and education, a relationship that has proven and continues to prove vital to STEM growth and success in SVVSD. Through the Innovation Center, students can apply what they’ve learned in a real-world setting.

“We’ve hired some current Skyline High School students to do some summer work and that’s the exciting piece, is now they’re really getting exited – they can work within the Innovation Center and get paid and now they’re using their intellectual property and their understanding of this process to really solve some problems,” said Patricia Quinones, executive director, Innovation and Race to the Top. “It’s really meaningful and relevant. They can put in on their resumes.”

“I think this is happening in other schools, but I don’t think it’s as systematic or as intentional as it is in the Skyline feeder,” Renaldi said. “I think we’re engaging kids we may not have engaged and gotten to the table.”

Among its business relationships, SVVSD has found a strong, like-minded partner in IBM; this partnership prompted a recent visit from the White House.

“Business has been looking for a way for years to give back to education,” Renaldi said. “All we’ve asked for is a check, and while I’m certainly not turning down those resources, there is certainly more to this relationship…there are brilliant experts out there that we’re not tapping, and education has to be better at that if we’re going to be successful in a changing world.”

“This is a partnership of equals,” said Bradford O. Brooks, Ph.D., IBM Fellow, Corporate Environmental Affairs & Product Safety Manager, Toxicology and Chemical Management. “IBM and SVVSD are equally passionate and innovative about the future of education. The best way to determine the future is to create it. There is a very innovative teaching staff at SVVSD; we have found some of the most innovative and committed staff. The education of our future workforce is vital.”

Dr. Brooks has been involved with Innovation Academy for a Smarter Planet, a unique, multi-year partnership between IBM and SVVSD that brings in young elementary students and middle school students for two weeks during the summer to work on design process challenges; he also was one of three IBM executives to serve on the design team for the new Spark! Discovery Preschool, a comprehensive STEM preschool program in the Carbon Valley area.

“An introduction to STEM early on changes the expectation of the students themselves, what their expectations are for the future of their education,” Dr. Brooks said. “STEM teaches critical thinking skills, disciplined thinking that is clear and concise.”

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Dr. Brooks notes that while children and parents are viewed as the primary consumers of education, “business is also a consumer. We want students who are able to be instantly integrated. We will consume the deliverables of that education. We can get involved with educational content and delivery.”

In collaboration with IBM, Skyline will house a P-TECH (pathways to technology careers), making it the first “school within a school” west of Chicago, and the first P-TECH that IBM is going to open. Within the Innovation Center, there will be a P-TECH in three years. If a student chooses to take the P-TECH route, he or she can earn two years of college credit while in high school and then land an internship, preparing them to walk out the door either ready for a job, or well positioned for further college education.

“We’re trying to say to every student, ‘if you want to go to a four-year college and take the STEM Academy pathway, or if you want to take the P-TECH pathway and work with your local community college and us to get you an internship, your needs can be met in our community of learning,” Renaldi said.

SVVSD also works closely with the engineering programs at the University of Colorado. PhD fellows work within the Skyline feeder schools, creating STEM lessons and working with students. Skyline has a guaranteed agreement with CU College of Engineering that dictates if a student graduates with a high school diploma and a STEM certification, applies to CU and gets admitted, that student has a guaranteed spot in a school of engineering or computer science program. SVVSD also works with CU on curriculum and professional development; the collaboration and backward planning have impacted some of the things CU does with freshmen because of the skills and experience freshmen are bringing with them out of high school.

Administrators, educators and business professionals agree that the benefits of a STEM education from an early age are many, regardless of whether a students plans to become an engineer, an artist or a physician.

“We have a responsibility to introduce our kids  to this concept,” Renaldi said. “It’s not about ‘you have to be an engineer,’ it’s about the fact that we’re giving you a problem solving tool in the design thinking process that you can use for anything. This will make you a successful citizen more than it will make you an engineer.”

“STEM prepares them to look in a problem-solving way,” Dr. Brooks said. “It teaches them a framework to solve tomorrow’s problems. It contributes to a unique world view, a can-do attitude.”

 -Story by Melissa Howell     – SPARK! Photos by Jonathan Castner. 


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