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.”

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

How I teach - STEM edition

How an award-winning teacher uses an app and camera phone to reinforce good math skills

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Looking to step up your technology game in the classroom, teachers?


Check out all the cool apps and software Carolyn Jordan, a teacher at Normandy Elementary in Littleton, uses in hers. (Tease: One involves a camera phone, math and parents).

Jordan was among a group of educators recently honored as part of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Along with receiving $10,000, she was given the opportunity to fill out our new How I Teach questionnaire. Here’s what she had to say …

School: Normandy Elementary

Current subject/grade: 4th grade, including an Advanced Math class

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: Engaging, multi-sensory story-teller

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
I review the learning objectives for the day and think, ‘How will my students learn what is presented? What is the best way for them to receive the information, practice it, and share out what they have learned?’ This is done for each subject, so no lesson goes by without a pause, or reflection, before it is implemented. Being prepared for your lesson is key. Then the fun begins when the students take it further than you imagined and you allow them the time to investigate more.

What does your classroom look like?

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: Coming Friday
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.

My classroom has calm colors, superhero decorations (because we all have our unique super powers), areas for partner works, a quiet reading corner, and is visually engaging with sentence starters and helpful tips. There are tall desks for kids who like to wiggle, pillows for floor choice, stools for others and rocking chairs as needed. There are five computers, students’ weekly jobs and independence to move in the room as needed.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
My Smart Board (an interactive whiteboard) and Doc Camera (a fancy overhead projector) are used for almost every lesson. Zooming in and showing big-size is important, and interacting with Smartboard lessons allows students to be engaged. I love This allows me to take photos and video of students in class, and send them to their parents in a secure way. Parents are only able to see what is specifically linked to their child, and they can comment and praise their child. I shift the role of photographer/videographer to the students, and they are in control of showing their parents how they solve a math problem, or read to the camera their latest narrative story. The parents love this. I use MobyMax, SpellingCity, for skills practice. And often go to Plickers and Kahoot! for quick class check-ins.

How do you plan your lessons?
It is a process. I take notes on what learning objectives need to be covered, then I brainstorm resources to implement the lessons. Sometimes it’s manipulatives for math, or a sorting activity for spelling. It can also be small group work on brainstorming how to approach a problem-solving activity. Knowing the desired outcome is the first step, and then backwards plan to meet the goal of mastery.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
I was taught the Madeline Hunter Method of lesson planning. It is still very similar 23 years later. You need to start and present the “What they are learning,” the “Why it is important,” and “How you know you will have learned it.” The modeling and check for understanding can be done by the teacher or student. Having the students talk is so important, so by sharing with each other what they already know, it lets the experts in the room already share their knowledge. The lesson also needs to be engaging. Kids need to participate in the learning, not just be receivers of information. Games, acting, drawing, watching, moving, elbow-partner sharing….all need to be involved. Students are not cookie-cutter images. They all have different needs and ways to learn. So during your school day, have you taught in a variety of ways so that each child is reached?

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I love when kids ask questions. When they are needing support, that clues me in that I need to share the information differently so that child can access the information in “their language.” Having another student re-teach the info, or share it in their own words, is more effective than my broken record playing over and over again. Using drawings and concept maps really help cement the concepts

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
I will walk near them, place my hand on their shoulder, or come by and tap on their desk. I find that my voice is not effective. They easily tune me out, so I need to be creative. I tend to sing, chant, clap, or interrupt the class with a brain break, if I need to get students back on track.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
I love sharing information with my parents. I use email, my website, and the SeeSaw app. I also write notes in the student planners, which parents sign nightly. Communication with parents includes due dates, and homework, but more importantly, it is about what learning is happening in our room and the emotional well-being of the class as a whole.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?
I try to narrow the focus to one or two items to grade. For example, with writing, I ask the students to puts a star next to the paragraph they want me to grade. This way, I can quickly give feedback on one item, instead of needing to provide feedback for the entire piece of writing.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am re-reading the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon. Since STARZ has a TV series mirroring the books, it is great to dive back into the stories.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Praise openly and often. Discipline privately. And love them up like you would if they were your own.