STEM in Colorado

What the heck is STEM? (And eight other questions you might be too embarrassed to ask.)

Students at Rangeview High School work during an electronics class. (File photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

STEM … it’s not your father’s science class. But what the heck is it?

It’s a good question. Chalkbeat has spent months exploring efforts across the state to bring a special blend of science, technology, engineering and math to more classrooms.

Below are eight questions we asked time and time again, and what dozens of educators and activists from across the state told us.

What is STEM?

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

But it’s more than that. STEM is an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to learning a variety of subjects and skills that exposes students to hands-on experiences. It’s all an effort to prepare students for the 21st century economy.

STEM isn’t just for students who want to grow up to build buildings or mobile apps, educators and activists emphasize. Because at its heart STEM is about problem-solving, it’s really for everyone, they say.

My kids take science and math classes. Is that STEM?

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.

Possibly. But ask yourself: Are my students just reading about renewable energy? Or are they doing things like studying what forms of renewable energy could run an entire high school, and then presenting their findings to renewable energy experts?

That’s one example of work students at Pueblo Central High School did last year. The school, which is already outfitted with solar panels, wants to do even more to reduce its carbon footprint. In the end, students presented ideas to local power company officials.

By the way, the majority of the students’ work on that project took place during their English class, not their science class. That’s because many STEM advocates argue the best programs ask students to put various skills — including reading, writing and public speaking — to use to create a product and present it.

Why has STEM become such a buzzword in education?

STEM is attractive for a number of reasons. But the top two reasons Chalkbeat heard time and again are that schools have a responsibility to prepare students for a new digital economy and that the project-based learning inherent to STEM keeps students engaged.

Students at Northglenn High School work during a bioscience class.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School work during a bioscience class.

While estimates vary, at least 20 percent of all Colorado jobs are in STEM fields. And that number is not going to shrink. The Colorado Workforce Development Council has reported that 62 percent of the state’s top jobs — those that are in growing industries and guarantee a middle-class income — will require STEM training.

Meanwhile, there’s been a broader nationwide push to get students thinking more critically. Classrooms across the county are ditching bubble tests for projects and writing responses.

STEM, done correctly, fits with this national movement — and students seem to be responding. Ask any STEM teacher, and they’ll tell you their classroom is more alive than ever with students who are engaged with their work. Students, for the first time in a long time, see the connection between what they’re learning and their future lives, educators say.

“Students are demanding a greater degree of relevance,” said Chris Gdowski, the superintendent of the Adams 12 Five Star School District, which has been a leader in STEM education in Colorado.

OK, this all sounds great. But surely there must be criticism of STEM?

Yes. Some critics worry that more science and technology means less literature and art. Or that students’ imaginations are being stifled. Others fret about too much screen time — especially for younger kids — and about exacerbating a digital divide between students from low-income homes and their more affluent peers.

STEM supporters counter that quality STEM programs rely on all the traditional school subject areas, and that STEM encourages students to think more creatively than in traditional classrooms because students are usually creating something during the day.

As for screen time, some educators in the STEM schools we visited voiced a similar concern and said they were taking steps to monitor device usage.

Meanwhile, the federal government, foundations and businesses have donated large sums of cash and technology to schools in a bid to address the tech divide.

What does STEM look like in schools?

While no two STEM experiences are the same, Colorado students who sign up for STEM courses usually experience them in one of three ways.

On one end of the spectrum are course-specific classes, such as computer science, that students sign up for during their middle and high school years. These courses, sometimes called “pathways,” build upon one another and are usually found at traditional neighborhood high schools. Engineering, computer science and bioscience are among the most popular.

On the other end of the spectrum are entire schools built around STEM. These schools, usually charters or magnet schools that families must choose, are built on a foundation of project-based learning and embed elements of STEM into every course — from English to electives. At STEM School in Douglas County, students in band class are asked to create a studio-grade album.

Increasingly, both traditional district-run and charter schools alike are attempting to find a middle path that calls for teachers across multiple subjects working together to develop lessons that allow students to use everything they’re learning to solve a problem.

STEM educators we spoke to are split on which method is the best. But if you ask students — as we did — the more hands-on work, the better. One student whose only chance at STEM work was a designated electronics class said: “This is the only class that offers hands-on projects. Other teachers just give us worksheets. Creating something is very interesting to me.”

Is there STEM curriculum in Colorado?

Colorado is a “local control” state. That means districts and schools choose their own curriculum. So the short answer is no. But there are some popular off-the-shelf STEM products many schools use. One we repeatedly encountered is called Project Lead the Way.

PLTW — as the cool STEM kids call it — are pre-packaged projects aligned to grade-specific standards teachers from elementary to high school can use in their classrooms. The nonprofit also offers an abundance of teacher training.

While many educators rave about PLTW, they do caution it can be costly.

So is it expensive to start a STEM program?

It can be.

Students work on a computer switch board during an electronics lesson at Rangeview High School.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on a computer switch board during an electronics class at Rangeview High School.

But several free resources exist, said Cameron Ryan, a computer science teacher who left Microsoft to teach at Dougulas County’s STEM School and Academy. The hard part is finding the right program for the lesson at hand.

A number of private foundations and businesses are willing partners, prepared to donate time, money or equipment.

Still, STEM educators and advocates argue the most important part of a quality STEM program is the how not the what. That means it’s more important for teachers and students to be working together on low-cost projects that will develop 21st century skills than sticking a kid in front of the latest technology with no direction.

What are some qualities that make up a good STEM program?

We’ve already addressed some of them, but to put it all together, STEM educators told us these qualities (in no particular order) are most important to have:

  1. Learning should be project-based, and usually conducted in groups.
  2. Ditch the bubble test. Students should be asked to produce something.
  3. Students should be encouraged to fail and fail often — and should not be penalized for doing so.
  4. Students should have to call on a variety of skills from all content areas to fulfill the project.
  5. Soft skills, like teamwork and problem solving, are just as important as knowing how to solve an algebra equation and other content knowledge.
  6. Schools or classrooms should have “industry partners,” individuals from tech or engineering companies who can lend expertise in the classroom.
  7. Students should have access to after-school clubs, associations and contests.

What are some barriers schools encounter when they try to adopt a STEM model?

Other than cost, what we heard from more than a few STEM leaders is the shift teachers must make in their classrooms can be difficult.

“It’s a different type of teaching,” said Ginger Slocum, the former principal of Highland Park Elementary.

A quality STEM program asks teachers from a variety of content areas to work together to develop shared lessons, in some cases starting from scratch. Teachers must also abandon tried-and-true worksheets for assignments that ask students to think and write critically. And lastly, teachers are encouraged to allow students to try new concepts. That means less lecturing and a greater focus on helping students explore what interests them.

Out of this World

Named for a renowned astronaut, this Colorado school took a break from classes to watch the solar eclipse

Students at Scott Carpenter Middle School take in the total solar eclipse. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

Just minutes before the peak viewing window of the United States’ first total solar eclipse in 99 years, science teacher Randy Vanderhurst excitedly waved a model of Earth orbiting the sun before his class of 6th graders.

In his raspy, booming voice, he asked students — broken up into clusters labeled “Awesome” and “Brilliant” — to answer questions about how the eclipse works.

“Awesome, please tell Brilliant why you think the eclipse is going to move across the country,” Vanderhurst told his students at Westminster’s M. Scott Carpenter Middle School.

When the moment finally arrived Monday, hundreds of kids at Scott Carpenter flooded out the school’s back doors and onto a large field. They carefully placed their red and black Eclipse USA glasses over their eyes to examine the sun, which looked like a bright orange sliver through the lenses.

Echoes of “Whoa!” and “That’s so cool!” scattered across the field. One girl was more dismissive, suggesting it was all a waste of time.

Nationwide, people clogged parks and drove in throngs of traffic to get their best glimpse of the “Great American Eclipse,” which arced across the country from Oregon to South Carolina. To make the phenomenon a teachable moment, educators across the country prepared special lessons, projects and safety plans — and Colorado teachers were no exception.

Scott Carpenter Middle School had special cause to pay attention: It is named after a Boulder-born astronaut who became the second American to orbit the earth. The school has long emphasized planetary science in its curriculum, making the eclipse a must-see event for its over 500 students.

Principal Tom Evans said once a teacher drew the impending eclipse to his attention in July, he set to work right away securing “legit” eclipse glasses for everyone in the building to safely view the event.

Over the Denver area, the eclipse reached about 93 percent totality, making Scott Carpenter’s lawn a decent viewing spot.

“It’s pretty cool we don’t have to travel to see it,” said Manuel, an 8th grader at the school.

Jeff Sands, who teaches 7th and 8th grade science, said students did not seem to be testing their luck by starting directly in the sun, which during an eclipse could lead to permanent vision damage.

“You’ve got 30 kids in a classroom and it’s kinda hard to keep track of them all,” Sands said. “These guys seem to be pretty responsible, though. I’m pretty impressed they’re listening to us.”

After a little more than 20 minutes of viewing, Evans, the principal, started directing the meandering middle schoolers back to their classes. He said he felt the logistics went “smoothly.”

Once all the students returned inside, they settled in to write reflections on the eclipse, and where they hope to be the next time such a celestial event passes. The next visible total solar eclipse over the United States will come in 2024, when the 6th graders at Scott Carpenter will be seniors in high school, Evans said.

“Scott Carpenter was an individual who obviously at some point in his life looked up at the sky and drew some inspiration,” he said. “It’s only fair that we give these kids the same opportunity because who knows, this may have sparked their interest as well.”


Colorado schools make plans to view — and teach — the solar eclipse

Students at Linden Elementary School in Oak Ridge, Tenn., try eclipse glasses. (Chalkbeat file)

This coming Monday should be, by all accounts, a normal day of school. But for three hours, the planet will go dark — and Colorado teachers are seizing it as a teaching moment.

On Monday, as Denver Public Schools starts and students in other Colorado districts settle into the first few weeks of the school year, the moon will blot out regularly scheduled programming as the United States experiences a rare total solar eclipse.

From launching balloons to constructing “sun funnels,” science teachers across the country have big plans for the “Great American Eclipse.” Although Colorado does not lie in the so-called “path of totality,” our view shouldn’t be bad, either. 

The eclipse is expected to reach 92.3 percent totality over Denver from after 10 a.m. to around 1 p.m., and schools throughout the state are setting aside time for students to view it safely.

“There’s kind of a new push in science for what is called phenomenon-driven science education,” said Renee Belisle, the grade 3-8 science curriculum specialist for DPS. “Through understanding those events, we understand more of the world around us. Kids can observe this phenomenon and then they can start to generate explanations for why this happens.”

Several districts have ordered or received donations of solar eclipse glasses to help students safely view the phenomenon. Belisle said DPS received a donation of 20,000 glasses to distributed “as equitably as possible” among 93,000 students.

Jeffco Public Schools is urging its students to view the eclipse indirectly through pinhole projectors.

“We offered a strong recommendation to all of our schools to view the eclipse using an indirect method of viewing,” said Matt Flores, Jeffco’s chief academic officer. “As we all know staring directly at the sun is never a good choice. Those glasses, though they have a filter… can still do some damage to a student’s eye.”

Other schools are trying to immerse students in eclipse-viewing and related activities for the day. Students at several area schools, including Cherry Creek High School, will be taking field trips to Wyoming, where the eclipse will be visible in totality over a 67-mile swath of the state.

Belisle said one DPS elementary school is holding an all-day back to school picnic so students can be outside for the entirety of the eclipse.

Officials from most districts said they granted autonomy to schools so they could design curriculum and pick activities around the event that best serve their students. But they all expressed excitement to kick off the school year with the grand display of planetary science in action.

“We hope that it opens their minds up quite a bit more about the beauty of science,” said Richard Charles, Cherry Creek’s director of STEM and innovation.