Eric Berngen realized just how different a learning environment he had signed up for when he almost stepped on a small robot zooming down a hallway at Skyline High School in Longmont during his first week on the job.
“It was surreal,” Berngen recently said of the near collision with the robot a student was operating that day nearly three years ago. “It was just a high-tech high going on at the school.”
Berngen moved in May 2016 from the urban density of Chicago to the wide expanses of northern Colorado to become part of an innovative new program at Skyline (Falcon Tech) that merges public high school education with industry and higher education. Students participating in that P-TECH program can earn a high school degree as well as an associate’s degree in applied science in computer information systems.
To understand just how different things are at Skyline, you also should know this: Even though Berngen works at Skyline four days of the week, he isn’t employed by the school. Nor is he an employee of the St. Vrain Valley School District, where Skyline is located. He works for IBM, as the education program manager for the company’s Boulder County operations.
He’s part of a new approach to education championed by St. Vrain, which in 2007 launched a series of academic innovations that have made the district the envy of public education administrators across the nation. It’s a learning philosophy rooted in combining forces with local colleges and businesses to give students high-tech skills that prepare them for work in highly technical and skilled jobs, a segment where growth is projected to continue.
Students get real-world experience in such areas as robotics, video production, entrepreneurship, computer science, aeronautics and biomedical engineering. Students pitch ideas to industry and community partners and some get hired to solve intractable problems as they earn college credits.
The changes have helped dramatically increase graduation rates among some of St. Vrain’s most disadvantaged students, school administrators say.
Projects impact Peruvian frogs, Brooklyn poets and stranded hikers
“The rigor is there,” Berngen said. “The push is there, and the opportunity for engagement is there and the supports are there. When all of those pieces of the puzzle are there, you’re going to have opportunities for outstanding student success.”
In all, St. Vrain has enlisted about 100 industry partners who rely on students to work on projects for them. The specialized programming has spread throughout the district. But a select group of about 100 of the participating students are being paid by those industry partners, or by the district, for specialized work, including the repair of school computers
One student team has built an underwater robot that officials at the Denver Zoo plan to use to help international biologists rescue an endangered frog species in Peru. Plans are underway to develop robotic prosthetics for injured zoo animals. Another group of students is designing drones that will handle school-district deliveries and take aerial photos for local real estate firms. Taylor Mali, a Brooklyn-based poet and educator, has deployed another set of students to create an iPhone app that will generate metaphors he can use for his slam poetry performances.
“These students, they are champing at the bit,” said James Garcia, an environmental educator with the Denver Zoo. “They want to be a part of something. They want to put their hands on something and build something.”
Garcia provided the students zoo grant money for them to build an underwater exploratory robot that he plans to take to Peru in May to help him document the devastation of the Telmatobius culeus frog that inhabits Lake Titicaca.
Last year, the Lemelson-MIT program, administered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, awarded a St. Vrain student team $10,000 to develop an emergency, portable beacon system that uses drones to locate and take video of people stranded in the mountains.
Such unique projects are attracting notice.
Last year, St. Vrain hosted 165 tours of its facilities, most for school officials from outside the state seeking to replicate the district’s approach. This year, the district is on a pace to far exceed that number of tours.
“We definitely have a national spotlight,” said Patricia Quinones, St. Vrain’s assistant superintendent of innovation. “They come from all over the country, whether it’s other school districts, industries or nonprofits. They are coming to just kind of gain some understanding of what our model looks like.”
Last year, St. Vrain took home the prize considered by many in academia to be the top award for technology education: The district team award from the Consortium for School Networking, the premier national association for school tech leaders. St. Vrain beat out thousands of other districts, earning praise for a system-wide approach and for having the most e-book and audiobook downloads of any school district competing for the award.
Flashback: STEM focus came from worries over aging school
Quinones was principal at Skyline High School in 2007, when the district — worried about the impact of a new high school across town on the aging northeast Longmont school — put itself on the path to push students to learn skills in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
Nearly 64 percent of the students at Skyline were minorities and nearly 45 percent of the students were on free or reduced lunch programs. Quinones went online and learned all she could about the emerging STEM education trend, which calls for more critical thinking and application and less memorization.
“We came up with the concept of developing programming within the school that would cause the kids to be attracted to the school,” Superintendent Don Haddad said.
Skyline opened a STEM Academy and a Visual Performing Arts Academy that year. In 2009, the school district won a $3.6 million investing in innovation fund grant, also known as an i3 grant, from the U.S. Department of Education to help it develop the STEM Academy.
The work involved changing the vocabulary of education at Skyline, using techniques popularized by Stanford University’s prestigious D.School. Teachers and students were trained in the Stanford process. They problem-solve by first learning to empathize with those needing a problem solved. They learned how to define the problem and brainstorm solutions before moving on to prototypes. They also learned that the development of a solution or project isn’t the end, and that followup work is necessary to determine if the proposed solution is working and if not, why it is failing. The Stanford thinking has become so embedded in St. Vrain’s culture that it’s now even part of the approach used when teachers and parents meet to discuss issues.
In 2012, St. Vrain became one of the 16 school districts in the nation awarded a highly competitive Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education. That $16.6 million grant helped St. Vrain spread the STEM Academy concept beyond Skyline to other schools in the district.
Voters in the district, which includes 32,000 students in Boulder, Weld, Broomfield and Larimer counties, also have passed two mill levy overrides to raise money for operations and two bond initiatives to overhaul existing schools and build new schools. Now, STEM elements are in use in more than 60 schools in the district, including two preschools that specialize in the approach.
The approach has become so far-reaching that St. Vrain third graders recently joined forces with the Longmont Museum to identify problems facing the local area and come up with possible solutions. The student suggestions, including how to create walkable communities for getting young children to school, are on display at the museum now. An app allows the students and their parents to get audio and video presentations on their cell phones of all that work.
The latest bond initiative also allowed St. Vrain to build a new 50,000-square-foot, $20 million innovation center that opened last year.
The new gleaming glass and steel St. Vrain Valley Innovation Center on Quail Road, near the Longmont Museum and a new recreation center, is modernity taken to the max. The center’s architecture of sharp, jutting angles screams Silicon Valley. Inside, along with lab spaces for robotics, computer programming, aeronautics, video and audio production, there’s also a $230,000 flight simulator, that was donated by Aims Community College. A huge aquarium filled with colorful, exotic fish allows students to test the aquatic robots they are developing. Upstairs, there’s a “pitch room,” complete with a long conference table, where students offer ideas to industry leaders and some end up signing contracts for deliverables.
Last year, the district decided to take its STEM programming on the road, hiring Farber Specialty Vehicles of Ohio to develop a 45-foot long mobile lab, at a cost of about $800,000, 30 percent of which will be covered by local businesses. Inspiration for the mobile lab came from Lockheed Martin’s Mars Experience bus, a virtual reality bus at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum that replicates the Martian landscape. Instead of Mars, St. Vrain’s customized motor coach will feature St. Vrain student projects.
“This is taking my creativity and turning it into a physical thing.”
On one recent day, students were excited as they showed a visitor to the innovation center their inventions and projects.
Avery Fails, 18, a senior at Erie High School, showed off the aerial cargo drone with a 7-foot wingspan that she helped create and talked about how she and other students were working on plans to use drones to handle the school district’s mail deliveries. Several real estate firms are on the verge of negotiating contracts with the students for drone projects, she added.
“This is taking my creativity and turning it into a physical thing,” Fails said.
She said she was “so psyched” that technology entrepreneur Elon Musk was working to send humans to Mars, and that she aspires to someday become a key player in Musk’s plans. She also said she wants to develop robotic prosthetics that could help injured animals.
Fails already has been accepted to attend the University of Colorado’s engineering program and has amassed enough higher ed credits at St. Vrain schools that’s she’s on track to get a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in five years instead of the typical six years.
Many others students in St. Vrain are earning credits for college courses. Administrators said programming at St. Vrain gave the class of 2018 the opportunity to receive over 10,000 college credits by graduation, course work that has the potential to save families millions of dollars in tuition costs, according to district data.
As the rigor of STEM work at St. Vrain has taken hold, students have responded.
The number of students participating in robotics competitions through the school district has increased 677%. Meanwhile, expulsions in the district have plunged to five last year from 34 in 2013. Graduation rates among Latino students are rising dramatically. In 2008, the graduation rate for Latino students at Skyline was about 65 percent, compared with 84 percent last year. Similar improvements have been logged for Latino students throughout the school district.
The statistics become more personal when you work with the students up close, said Berngen, who serves as a bridge between IBM and Skyline students enrolled in one of the state’s first P-TECH programs, or Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools. Students enrolled in that program can work toward getting an associate’s degree from Front Range Community College. They develop resumes, undergo mock interviews and learn how to sell themselves to prospective employers.
IBM provides more than 100 mentors to help an equivalent number of students enrolled in Berngen’s program.
“We have incredible students, teachers, mentors, parents and partner leadership,” he said, adding that the work of Greg Stephens, the P-TECH principal and Marty Goldberg, the director of high school programs at Front Range, were crucial to the program’s success.
He recalled how one student was struggling last year. He decided to give the student special attention and began assigning him mentor tutors after school.
“The amount of growth that happened in that student from the freshman to junior year has been absolutely incredible,” Berngen said. “It went from, ‘We don’t know if that student is going to make it,’ to the student becoming one of the top requested kids in the district for internship opportunities.
“It’s been amazing,” he said.