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The first time he visited Swanson Elementary School’s STEM Lab, second-grader Caleb Vo had one thing to say: “I am just blown away by this.”
Alongside his classmates, Vo was exploring the new lab by experimenting with robots, magnets and software to develop STEM skills, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills.
“You guys are going to do great things,” Shannon Feely told the second-grade students at the beginning of their visit. The students erupted into cheers as Feely, the school’s digital teacher librarian, listed the possibilities that STEM skills could lead to: a cure for cancer, an end to cyberbullying and a new way to protect oceans from pollution.
After that, it was time to get to work.
Swanson and Thomson elementary schools held the grand openings of their STEM labs this May, inviting the community to view these new spaces for the first time. Located in renovated rooms within the schools, the labs provide a range of new equipment designed to foster techniques that haven’t previously been taught in the classrooms.
“This is different, because we usually don’t use robots in class,” said Dolce Benitez, a second-grader at Swanson. “I think it will be fun in a different way.”
Throughout the yearlong effort to build the labs, school administrators from across the area have partnered with a handful of organizations, including Jeffco Public Schools, the Jeffco Schools Foundation and the Gill Foundation, a nonprofit that provided grant money to build the labs.
Designed by Creative Learning Systems, the labs mark the beginning of a larger scheme to incorporate STEM learning into schools across the area. The district has plans to build labs in two additional elementary schools, as well as North Arvada Middle School and Arvada High School, Feely said.
Ideally, students will develop foundational STEM skills during elementary school and will have the chance to take higher-level STEM classes in middle and high school.
“It was really smart thinking to expand this within the area,” said Natalie Berges Tucker, principal of Thomson Elementary School.
She added that the pathway will also prepare the students for whatever they’d like to do after high school.
“Employers are looking for people who can be problem solvers and critical thinkers,” she said. “This is a great breeding ground for that.”
At both schools, every student will visit the STEM labs with their classes multiple times each year. Students will rotate through a variety of activities, from using design software to building physical models out of different materials.
“We can build and discover new things,” said Ruhin Sah, a Thomson third-grader who has visited the STEM lab several times. “We learned that some things are challenging, but here, you can explore things.”
For Swanson Elementary principal Kristina Carothers, the STEM lab project represents a dream turned into a reality, she said. After undergoing a long effort to fund the implementation of one-to-one devices — a program that has provided an in-class iPad for each student — Carothers and her staff focused on creating STEM opportunities at Swanson.
She and her staff were prepared to do whatever it took to raise money for a STEM lab when they learned that they would receive funding for such a project through the Gill Foundation.
“It would have taken us I don’t know how long to fund this ourselves,” Carothers said. “We would have had to sell a lot of $1 chocolate bars.”
She added that the project levels the playing field for students from low-income families. Both Swanson and Thomson elementary schools receive Title I funding, which is federal funding awarded to schools that reach a high number of low-income students.
Staff members at both schools stated the programs have already proven to support these students as they develop different skills.
“The biggest benefit I’m already seeing is our students becoming risk-takers and collaborators,” said Rita Pereira, Thomson’s digital teacher librarian.
As the students worked together in the labs, they agreed that the new opportunities were unlike anything they’d experienced in school before.
“Once you figure it out, it’s cool. I like expressing myself through the computer,” said Austin Overby, a Thomson third-grader. “It’s freedom. Freedom at last.”
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