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Q&A: STEM Innovation Lessons Learned in Colo. District

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The 16 winners of the 2012 Race to the Top district competition have spent the past two years—and over $350 million in total grant funding—in pursuit of school improvement efforts to personalize learning and boost student achievement. 

Education Week investigated the state of these efforts last October as part of a special report on personalized learning—and in the coming months, Digital Education will be following up with each district to spotlight how the initiatives are continuing to unfold.

Kicking off our follow-up coverage is a Q&A with Patty Quiñones, the executive director of innovation for the St. Vrain Valley School district in Longmont, Colo. The district was awarded a $16.6 million grant from the Race to the Top Fund.

Our conversation (which has been edited for length and clarity) was about St. Vrain's efforts to expand K-12 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and improve career readiness among high school graduates through the creation of a STEM Academy and an Innovation Center. 

What motivated the district to establish a STEM Academy at Skyline High School?

We came upon the idea of creating a STEM academy not only because of the need within the state of Colorado for a workforce that has STEM skills, but also our proximity to University of Colorado Boulder, which could provide us with resources. 

When we renovated Skyline High School for $14 million, [funded by a community bond passed in 2008,] it was kind of the perfect storm. We were able to design and create unique educational spaces that were directly aligned to the curriculum we were beginning to implement. Skyline has two engineering labs, they have a small fabrication lab, and they have a technology area. 

How has St. Vrain expanded the STEM focus beyond Skyline High School?

Our initial partnership with University of Colorado Boulder College of Applied Sciences came into play with a fellowship grant they received from the National Science Foundation. They were able to parlay [their grant] into giving us resources at Skyline High School for PHD fellows to come and work with our teachers and students—[supporting] professional development and [helping] us design our curriculum. So that was a great partnership and they have continued to be with us even as we have progressed to the Race to the Top grant.

Our Race to the Top focus was: can we align STEM integration from Pre-K all the way through Skyline, being the pinnacle. The work is around integrating STEM into core classes, and teaching teachers the design-thinking process. We hired 10 STEM coordinators—one at each [feeder] school—and they meet on a weekly basis to really focus on the adults in the building. 

There's not a lot of STEM curriculum at the Elementary and Middle School levels so we're really creating what that looks like. [This past summer] we had teachers create units of study to enhance what they were having to teach anyway. We asked the STEM coordinators to oversee that curriculum development process [which focused on] project-based learning, and design thinking. We had 135 teachers participate, and we probably had over 100 units of study that were created. It was a huge success.

Now it's kind of that trickle-down effect—teachers are collaborating with their teams, and redesigning the lessons based on what they feel could be improved. I think one of the pieces that is continuously a challenge is how you can take the best of the best and push it out to the rest of the district. 

What is the purpose of the Innovation Center?

The Innovation Center is a place for students to develop and enhance skills—not just through the academic environment, but through real industry experience. We've got students right now that are using their skills as programmers to program humanoid robots, we have students who are doing web design for clients, we have students that are beta testing for companies that want to put products on the marketplace.

Over 20 companies are providing us with expertise as well as projects. One that we're working with right now is called Modular Robotics. They hired seven of our students to program an educational training game that will [show consumers] how to use a robotics toy—they had to do the story board, and they're writing programming in IOS right now. They've been working with the company's computer programmers, educational director, and the marketing person.

These skills—creating your own business, being able to work as engineers or as managers for real projects—are invaluable. And when you add the relevance of students getting paid for their academic expertise and knowledge base, it's a whole different thing than going to stack groceries or flip burgers. 

Do companies compensate students for the work they do?

It's a sustainable financial model, [whereby the funding from businesses supports the Innovation Center itself]. But we pay our students $10 an hour.

Race to the Top approved paying students too, for in-house projects. Our Tech 1 students that have passed the Apple certification test have the opportunity to join our tech team that helps fix our district's Apple computers. We've also opened a tech lab after school, where teachers can get their personal devices fixed for free—they just have to pay for the parts.

It's a really interesting pipeline experience that we're creating. Companies are fascinated by a high school student being able to do some of this work, and I think we're attracting more and more companies that also want to help improve education.

What's next for St. Vrain?

We are going to propose in 2016 a bond to build a standalone Innovation Center that will coincide with the end of the Race to the Top grant so that all district students can participate. It will be an R&D center, an entrepreneurial zone, and a maker space.

[We're also establishing] a Pathways to Technology early college model, which IBM has already made a commitment to support. We will work with our community college to extend the opportunity for students to graduate [from high school] with an Associate of Applied Sciences degree.

IBM has said they will provide mentorship internships to students, and then put those students at the front of the line when they are hiring. They potentially will have invested four or five years into a student that can be placed into their workforce—so that's a real pathway, a really focused way to get these students workforce ready. 

What advice would you give other districts?

You can start with one classroom environment, one passionate teacher, and really build out from there to engage your community. Don't think that you can't afford to create a STEM integrated environment; you just have to refocus your resources.

Talk with your community leaders as partners. In St. Vrain, we never asked for money initially, we actually asked for expertise. That's a big difference. When Lockheed Martin and University of Colorado came to us, we said "we need your expertise." We also planned backward, [asking], "What would you like to see engineering students come in with? What type of academic foundation do you need?"

It's not something you can do overnight, and certainly, with all the things that teachers have on their plate, you have to focus on professional development and supporting teachers. You're asking them to push the envelope and to be creative, so allow them to fail!

Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the university partner of the St. Vrain Valley School district.  The correct university is University of Colorado Boulder.

Photo: Nick Sellers, a senior at Skyline High School's STEM Academy, works at the Innovation Center in his free time. Courtesy of the Innovation Center at St. Vrain Valley Schools.


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