STEM in Colorado

How one Colorado school district has embraced STEM as a way of life

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cuauhtemoc Jesus Sanchez at Skyline High School in Longmont is one of the first Colorado students to be enrolled in a new P-TECH program.

LONGMONT — Cuauhtemoc Jesus Sanchez isn’t shy about why he’s enrolled in what might be one of the state’s most ambitious science, engineering, math and technology programs.

Money.

“I want to buy a house for my mom,” said the freshman at Skyline High School in Longmont, about 40 minutes north of Denver.

Sanchez is one of 50 students in the St. Vrain Valley School District to be enrolled in one of the the state’s new P-TECH programs. A similar effort also launched at Northglenn High School in Adams County.

P-TECH is a growing national effort that brings together public schools, community colleges and tech companies in an effort to provide traditionally underserved students a more robust education in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and the promise of a good job.

The program is a natural fit for the St. Vrain Valley district, which for nearly a decade has devoted energy to STEM offerings with the aid of millions in federal tax dollars. Now, it is focusing more effort on serving its growing population of at-risk students — with P-TECH being one example.

“It’s going to be hard, but we’ll get through it,” said Marina Rivas, one of Sanchez’s classmates. “We’re very lucky kids.”

“We defined STEM”

In 2007, St. Vrain officials were looking for a way to keep Skyline’s mostly poor and Latino students in school. The four-year on-time graduation rate was just 77.4 percent, much lower than the district’s other high schools.

STEM in Colorado | A Chalkbeat special report

PART 1: Little access to STEM education
PART 2: St. Vrain goes all in on STEM
PART 3: What the heck is STEM?
PART 4: A scrappy STEM school with something to prove
FIRST PERSON: How my STEM education is going to help me get clean drinking water in Ethiopia
HOW I TEACH STEM: An award-winning science teacher shares her classroom practices.
HOW I TEACH STEM: An award winning fourth-grade teacher shares her classroom practices.
The Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado provided financial support for this series.

Patty Quinones, then principal of Skyline, went online and learned everything she could about this new trend in public schools: STEM.

STEM evangelizers then and now believe the model, which calls for more critical thinking and application than memorization and bubble tests, keeps students engaged and in school.

Quinones and her team of teachers and administrators contacted the University of Colorado’s School of Engineering and local industry officials to create what is now the STEM Academy at Skyline.

A $3.6 million federal grant, part of the Obama administration’s stimulus package following the Great Recession, paid for teacher training and technology upgrades at Skyline.

Students enroll as freshman and take four years of STEM courses that include explorations of structural engineering, renewable energy and robotics. Those who successfully complete the program — which includes a senior-year project that must be presented in front of a panel of industry experts — could lead to guaranteed admission to CU’s School of Engineering.

All district STEM offerings share the same philosophies: that learning is personalized for each student, and that students demonstrate their learning by creating products using a formal process.

“Teachers said they didn’t want to buy anything off the shelf,” Quinones said. “We defined STEM for ourselves.”

"When you get older, you’re going to have to code. … Like, if you want to build a robot to clean your room."Camila Carmona-Zavala, Indian Peaks student

The results so far have been mixed.

Nearly 10 years after STEM Academy’s founding, Skyline officials point to a four-year graduation rate that has jumped four points to 81.4 percent.

But the school, which serves more students of color than any other high school in the district, still has challenges. White students are enrolling in the Academy at a higher rate than Latino students, and the school’s math and science ACT scores have been flat since 2010.

Current Principal Heidi Ringer said she believes an expansion of STEM programs, especially at the elementary and middle school levels, will help turn the tide.

Expansion

It’s a regular afternoon in Lila Kennelly’s second-grade class at Indian Peaks Elementary School. Students are working on a variety of computer-based projects, including using an online tool to design applications.

A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School in Longmont participates in a lesson about the nation's forests.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School in Longmont participates in a lesson about the nation’s forests.

Camila Carmona-Zavala is struggling to get beyond the blank screen in front of her. But she knows why this work is important.

“When you get older, you’re going to have to code,” she said. “… Like, if you want to build a robot to clean your room.”

Since the creation of the STEM Academy, other STEM courses and opportunities have quickly spread to other schools in St. Vrain. Today, students at Longmont High are studying medical and bioscience. And Erie High has an engineering and aerospace program.

But the largest expansion of STEM in St. Vrain came in 2012, when the district won a $16 million federal grant to redesign many of its elementary schools — especially those that are in the same neighborhood as Skyline High and serve mostly Hispanic students from low-income homes.

As part of the redesign, each school hired a STEM coordinator to help teachers plan lessons and projects that demand students use knowledge in multiple subject areas. STEM is not isolated in a science block or math block, but talked about throughout the day.

“I think the change in the building itself is seeing students think differently,” Kennelly said. “It’s every subject all the time — which is the real world.”

Kennelly, a 30-year veteran, said the shift for both students and teachers has been difficult but rewarding. While the district has provided formal training as part of the transition, she regularly attends more casual meetings of teachers and STEM coordinators at a local brewery where teachers exchange tips about coding and robotics.

“For me, it’s been exhilarating,” she said. “I want to live in a world where every kid has an opportunity for a STEM education.”

P-TECH and beyond

It’s too soon to tell whether the changes at St. Vrain’s elementary and middle schools have made a difference academically for students. A change in state assessments also complicated matters, making comparisons difficult. But the district is all-in on STEM.

"Our picture-perfect is that in five years, 100 percent of these students will have an associates degree and be employed."Eric Bergen, IBM program manager for P-TECH

“Now that we have this big machine going, you’ll see better and better results,” said Patty Quinones, director of innovation for St. Vrain. “It’s gonna bust wide open in a couple of years.”

And district leaders believe the new P-TECH school at Skyline is just the first of many.

“We have huge numbers begging (for the program) at other schools,” said Regina Renaldi, an assistant superintendent.

But the district isn’t in a rush. Officials want to make sure that the program is successful.

Problems with the P-TECH model have arisen. One of the first P-TECH schools in New York City has been dogged by low college completion rates and infighting among the various partners that make up the program.

“Our picture-perfect is that in five years, 100 percent of these students will have an associates degree and be employed,” said Eric Berngen, a program manager for IBM who spends three days a week at Skyline.

District leaders hope they’ll be able to offer students more certifications and apprenticeships in the coming years. St. Vrain students can already earn an Apple certification to repair iPhones and laptop computers.

“We’re no longer satisfied with just graduating students,” Renaldi said.

As for Sanchez, he’s steeling himself for the next five years, the average time it takes a student to complete the P-TECH program.

“It’s going to be kinda hard,” he said. “We’re in college and we’re barely high school students.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported the name of Skyline High School.

bridging cultures

Centuries-old Ute Indian traditions find home in 21st century Colorado science classrooms

Students from a Fort Collins elementary school learn math through beadwork (photo by Eric Gorski).

Splayed on the marble floor, a group of fourth-graders arrange colorful strands of beads into a diamond pattern, mimicking the intricate beadwork of the Ute people.

This is part history lesson, part math lesson. The students from Zach Elementary in Fort Collins may not know it, but beading involves complex mathematics. Figuring out patterns and counting beads to make something beautiful — like the dazzling trim on a Ute cradleboard or the band of a hat — provide foundations for learning algebra and geometry.

That lesson, delivered Tuesday in the grand entry hall of the History Colorado Center in Denver, helped kick off a five-year initiative aimed at bridging cultures by integrating centuries-old Native American knowledge with Western science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

The project, bankrolled by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, also will give Ute young people in Colorado and Utah hands-on field experience meant to inspire them to not only see the connections to their past but to pursue STEM careers.

“From a native perspective, we always talk about walking in two worlds,” said Ernest House Jr., executive secretary for the Colorado Commission of Indians Affairs, a project partner. “You walk in a native world and non-native world, with one foot in a moccasin and the other in a tennis shoe, and you have to balance those. This brings sort of the same approach to education.”

House is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, one of three federally recognized Ute tribes involved in the project. Colorado’s Ute population is concentrated on two reservations in southwestern Colorado.

History Colorado — the agency that oversees the state’s archives, museums and preservation efforts — won the grant after falling short a year earlier, working in collaboration with the tribes to develop all the materials and activities.

One of the core pieces is exposing Ute young people to fieldwork in archaeology and ethnobotany — the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious and other uses.

Organizers say Ute students will do archeological surveying at a gulch about an hour south of Grand Junction. They will traverse land, look for sites and record any that are found. Another group will travel to a plant-rich oasis in the San Luis Valley to study botany there. Tribal elders and other experts in the fields will be involved.

“We want Ute kids to not feel like STEM is ‘other,’ said Shannon Voirol, manager of exhibit planning for History Colorado. “There is all this STEM talk. ‘STEM, STEM, STEM.’ They have been doing STEM forever. Their families have been doing STEM forever. It is part of them. We want to really get that message through, so they do feel comfortable going into STEM careers and see themselves as STEM practitioners.”

The educational challenges facing Native American youth, many of whom live in dire poverty, are well-documented. Nationally, native youth post the worst achievement scores and the lowest graduation rates of any student subgroup.

In southwestern Colorado, Ute kids attend both public school and tribal schools.

Students on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in Montezuma County — near the Four Corners area — enroll in schools in the Montezuma-Cortez School District, House said. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, meantime, runs an innovative K-5 Montessori charter school that incorporates tribal traditions. Older students attend public schools in the Ignatio School District, House said.

The cross-cultural project also will involve science teachers in communities including Cortez, Durango and Bayfield, all of whom have worked on similar cultural exchange programs in the past.

Another goal is to expose the general Colorado student population to native knowledge — like the kids from the Fort Collins elementary school.

Karlee Maitland Gutierrez, a fourth-grade teacher at Zach Elementary, part of the Poudre School District, said she plans to incorporate what students learned about beading and other Ute practices into lessons that align with state academic standards.

With the grant money, History Colorado officials and their partners plan to develop “kits” of materials and activities for educators statewide, training for teachers, traveling programs and interactive online exhibits in which students can earn digital badges. Along with covering Ute knowledge on subjects such as beadwork and plants, the lessons will touch on the tribes’ engineering practices in building wood shelters, and sound amplification for music and dance.

The project’s aim is to engage 128,000 students, educators and experts in Colorado and Utah, officials said.

Other opportunities abound, said Liz Cook, an educator for History Colorado. Cook notes that much Ute STEM learning is family learning — mothers sharing plant traditions with daughters, for example, with knowledge being passed down from generation to generation.

“There is a lot of research in informal science education about family learning — looking at science and education as not just being in a classroom with test tubes, but how people cooking together builds science literacy, how doing gardening together builds science literacy,” she said. “So when we cook together, or are out fixing the car — that is a science or math learning opportunity.”

Read Chalkbeat’s recent special report on STEM education in Colorado

STEM in Colorado

At tech conference, scrappy students from a low-income STEM school have something to prove

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Ty Dillon, center, attempts to remove a block during the Giant Jenga tournament at the Technology Student Association conference In February. His teammate, Paolo Domenico watches on his knees.

The teenagers from Thornton hop around the giant wooden blocks stacked in three-foot towers, trying to figure out which piece can be removed without it all crumbling down.

The team from Academy High School has come here, to an annual tech competition, to prove they can stack up against students from places of privilege, from schools that always make the best-of lists.

The Giant Jenga tournament is their best chance.

If they can perform well at the Technology Student Association conference, maybe even prevail, it could prove to be an encouraging sign that their school’s four-year investment in STEM education has paid off.

STEM, an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to learning that exposes students to hands-on experiences, has become a buzzword in public education. The emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math has been embraced by government leaders, prominent philanthropists and business leaders eager to groom employees for today’s digital economy.

Many of these efforts — including the one at Academy — are meant to provide opportunities to Latino and low-income students who face barriers to academic and economic success.

The technology conference staged at a Denver Tech Center hotel is an opportunity to put their STEM skills to the test in a variety of competitions — from debates to underwater car races.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Paolo Domenico, an Academy sophomore. “There are like 1,600 kids here. They look like they’re more prepared.”

• • •

Josh Hirsch, a trained social studies and English teacher, joined the staff at Academy High as the school was undergoing a dramatic transformation.

STEM in Colorado | A Chalkbeat special report

PART 1: Little access to STEM education
PART 2: St. Vrain goes all in on STEM
PART 3: What the heck is STEM?
PART 4: A scrappy STEM school with something to prove
FIRST PERSON: How my STEM education is going to help me get clean drinking water in Ethiopia
HOW I TEACH STEM: An award-winning science teacher shares her classroom practices.
HOW I TEACH STEM: An award winning fourth-grade teacher shares her classroom practices.
The Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado provided financial support for this series.

“The plan was never to be a full-time technology teacher,” said Hirsch, sponsor of the Academy High team competing in the tech event.

About a decade ago, Mapleton Public Schools dissolved its single comprehensive high school into multiple smaller schools. Schools began adopting specialized programs, including an International Baccalaureate program, an early college and an expeditionary learning school.

Academy was the last school to choose a path — in 2012 — and that’s when Hirsch arrived.

District and school leadership had a vision to create a robust STEM program that would engage students and provide them the skills to choose careers from computer coding to nursing.

Hirsch, who had a budding interest in technology, quickly immersed himself in all things STEM. He even taught himself the basics of coding.

“It became a natural fit,” he said, later adding that one of many so-called “soft skills” a good STEM student must master is adaptability. “You have to stay relevant.”

Today, he teaches a wide range of technology skills — everything from the basics of word processing to how to build apps. It changes each year based on the level of experience of his students and their own areas of interest.

But adopting a STEM model at Academy has not been without growing pains.

Selena Aguiniga, a senior who competed at the tech conference last winter and graduated in the spring, said her classes experienced plenty of false starts.

“Teachers were confused sometimes,” she said. “But we were all able to problem-solve.”

Still, the school is hard-pressed to say the shift to STEM has paid off academically.

There’s no data proving that an increased focus on science or math has made a difference for students. The school’s ACT math score rose modestly from 17.6 in 2011 to 18.1 in 2016. And its ACT science score has fluctuated only slightly, ending at 18.8 in 2016. Both scores are about 2 points below the state average.

The school’s graduation rate — a data point other STEM schools often point to as a sign of strength — is down 9 percentage points since 2011.

“I would love to see STEM be a silver bullet,” Hirsch said. “But it’s still early in the process to know if this is going to make the difference. But we have to keep trying. What else are we going to do?”

• • •

The Academy High team started the technology contests from behind.

The team did not complete a video game ahead of the competition, so they had nothing to enter.

Members of the Academy tech club work on a video during a conference at a Denver Tech Center hotel.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Members of the Academy tech club work on a video during a conference at a Denver Tech Center hotel.

“It was a heavy workload,” said Carlos Cano, then a junior. “We weren’t used to the technology.”

The team began meeting five months before the conference to develop the game. It was supposed to be gory and involve the player attempting to escape an asylum. But it proved difficult to keep everyone on task, Cano said.

“It was kind of a disappointment, but at least we tried,” he said, adding that one of the core philosophies of STEM is that it’s OK to fail.

Cano knows something about trying. While the “S” in STEM has come easy for him, the “M” has not. And that’s put him behind in achieving his goals of building buildings.

“People say I won’t pass because I don’t know math,” he said.

But he’s been spending more time using an online resource to teach himself. And he has aspirations of starting at a local community college before transferring to a university.

At the tech competition, Cano looks around the hotel lobby, filled with mostly white teenage boys sporting zits and facial hair for the first time. He’s noticeably one of a few students with a darker complexion. Several of his teammates are white, too.

“We’re completely different people,” he said, referring to his white peers. “But we’re all friends. Race doesn’t matter.”

But Cano isn’t oblivious to the financial disadvantage he faces.

“We have to get scholarships to go to college,” he said.

• • •

After all the underwater car racing and indoor plane flying finishes for the day, it’s time for the most cherished contest at the tech conference: Giant Jenga.

Members of the Academy tech team watch as an opponent removes a block for their Jenga tour.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Members of the Academy tech club, right, watch as an opponent removes a block for a Jenga tower.

Though it seems like the activity is just for fun, Jenga draws on STEM skills, too. It requires teamwork and some engineering know-how. It also somewhat levels the playing field. Unlike other competitions that require advance preparation, each team starts at the same place.

This provides a shot at redemption for Academy High, still stinging from not being able to enter a video game.

By now, most of the teenage competitors have traded their slacks and dress shirts for jeans and hoodies. Some teams have the names of their schools embroidered on their sweaters.

Academy puts together three teams of two for the tournament. Some schools have as many as four teams of four. The competition pits different teams against each other, with the winners advancing to the next round until only two teams remain.

Hundreds of teenage boys, a few dozen girls, and their teachers and parents cram into a small hotel conference room as the teams square off

“It’s good this is such a laid-back event,” Ty Dillon, one of Academy’s Jenga players, said sarcastically.

In truth, it is nail-biting.

While players move stealthily around the wooden towers — some on their knees — blocks elsewhere in the room crash down like thunder.

Organizers of the events yell out the next rounds’ participants.

Round after round, Academy beats teams from some of the state’s most respected public schools, including Cherokee Trail from the Cherry Creek School District, Ralston Valley from Jeffco Public Schools and Castle View from Douglas County.

At one point, a losing team congratulates the Academy team and suggests they improved since last year. That brings a smile to the face of Domenico, the sophomore who felt unprepared, because in truth, this was their first Jenga tournament and they were playing against and winning the respect of seasoned veterans.

Academy triumphed over numerous teams. But the scrappy students with something to prove fell just short of the Jenga trophy they sought in the semifinals.

• • •

Not all was lost.

Aguiniga, the senior who started with the STEM program four years ago, and her debate partner Breanna Allen came in second place in their division. Perhaps ironically, their debate challenge was to argue that STEM courses should not be more important than non-STEM classes.

And six months later, members of the Academy tech club are still reliving that February weekend, Hirsch said. Those stories have helped grow the club from about a dozen members to nearly 40.

The team’s veterans are already strategizing how they can have a more impressive showing next year.

“I hope we build upon our failures,” Cano said. “We failed a lot. But you need failure to find success.”