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LONGMONT, Colo. — In one back room at Skyline High School, you can learn all you need to know about St. Vrain Valley School District. It’s there that bins of materials sit next to past projects, exposing the district’s DNA.
Boxes holding glue, Popsicle sticks, tape, pipe cleaners, compasses, zip ties and rulers lie nestled inside a 6-foot-high, student-constructed rack. Behind the storage unit sits a rectangular wooden box stuffed with bicycle tires filled with Silly Putty to replicate human intestines. For that biomedical project, students had to create a probe and learn to maneuver it sight unseen from behind a curtain on the box’s opening to procure a sample from the intestine/bike tire.
“We want students to use their brains and learn what careers could look like,” said Axel Reitzig, a program director at the district’s Innovation Center. And career preparation here isn’t just a buzzword but more like a guiding principle: When the end-of-day bell sounds, some children transition from students to employees of the district, and earn $10 an hour for working on a variety of projects for local technology companies.
This year, 80 students (age 15 or older) are being paid to work on 10 different teams. In the past, student work has ranged from the cutting edge to the routine, from creating a measuring tool that uses lasers to estimate the length of great white sharks to teaching officials in Longmont, the district’s main city, how to better use smartphones in their jobs.
Their work is a version of what educators call project-based learning, which means gaining knowledge by solving problems rather than by studying textbooks. But in this Colorado district, it can also mean learning by working on real jobs.
The project that has caused the biggest splash came from the Innovation Center’s aquatic robotics team. For the past two years, students have been working with scientists in Peru to try to determine why the Titicaca water frog has been disappearing in vast numbers. After the Denver Zoo’s James Garcia, who had been seeking a way to help Peruvian scientists save the frogs, saw students present a robot they had built at a local workshop, he asked if they could construct an underwater model.
Garcia and the scientists wanted to study conditions on the 300-foot-deep lakebed where the frogs live to see if changes there were responsible for the species’ dramatic decline. “We actually had to learn about the frogs,” said Jerry Vasquez, who started with the project when he was a sophomore in 2015. “We were just four guys, we really didn’t know anything about it.” (Today the group has swelled to 13 members and includes girls.)
As the South American scientists tested the model, Vasquez and his classmates used Skype (and Spanish, the native language for some team members) to discuss ways to fine-tune its capabilities. While the modified robot worked well in shallow waters, it hasn’t been able to take video or transmit readings from the lake’s bottom. Because of these problems, the $1,500 OpenROV 2.8 is being sent back to Colorado so students can try to troubleshoot it.
The work has meant more to Vasquez than just a paycheck, he said. After doing presentations at various events in Longmont, Boulder and Denver, the 17-year-old senior said, “It makes me feel ready for anything that might come my way. It’s made me realize how a small group can do such big things.”
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“When I was in high school, I wasn’t doing [projects like] this,” Garcia said.
The model of paying students for work they do in school is unusual, said Suzie Boss, an advocate for project-based learning and the author of 10 books on the subject. “But classroom walls are becoming a lot more permeable,” she said, citing examples in which a group of students in Georgia earned a patent for work they completed in school and seven districts in Iowa teamed up to help students spend part of their school days working for local companies.
“The desire to do this causes some really interesting conversations between schools and project partners,” Boss said. “Teachers push [academic] standards into these projects,” and schools don’t “want projects where kids are just an extra set of hands.”
As more schools try to offer students experience working on tasks that can impact the outside world, Boss said, “My guess is we’ll see more of this type of thing. District leaders are hungry for these sorts of examples.”
In addition to the group of student-employees, almost all of the St. Vrain district’s 32,000 students do a substantial amount of learning through hands-on projects, most of which incorporate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. The fast-growing district of 55 schools and programs, located about 30 miles north of Denver, has slowly transformed itself during the past eight years to emphasize this. The Innovation Center is full of gee-whiz tools, from drones to virtual reality headsets, that encourage students to dream big and build prototypes of their ideas. Students have worked on a diverse range of projects, from inventing a sweatband that monitors an exerciser’s body temperature to trying to create an app that will connect a pill container to a doctor’s office to help ensure a patient takes her medication.
Many students say they love the freedom and the challenge. “AP classes give you more homework,” said Madison Reed, a senior at Skyline. “STEM gives me challenges to think about. It’s more engaging.”
For St. Vrain Valley officials, paying students felt like a natural extension of the school days’ project-based learning and STEM studies. Working on these projects is more open-ended than regular classwork, and the work requires students to be persistent, Reitzig said.
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The district partners with more than 60 companies, adminstrators say, many in the Boulder-Longmont area. As employees, students must comply with the district’s human resources policies and undergo performance evaluations led by a student project leader and an Innovation Center staffer. While the program runs smoothly now because newcomers are tutored mostly by older students, Reitzig said there were bumpy times at the beginning, as school officials found themselves dealing with some student-employees who saw start times as flexible or didn’t grasp the need to work efficiently. Collectively, the 80 students who are getting paid typically log 350 to 400 hours working per month; the district pays them, and recoups the funds by billing the companies.
Reitzig admitted that the system still isn’t perfect. Students sometimes leave to seek part-time jobs that can guarantee more hours, especially if they are saving money for college or a car. Some have trouble working around extracurricular activities like sports. Yet, Vasquez said, “a lot of students are afraid to search for a job,” and “they feel safe working as if it was school, then slowly pushing into the field.”
To be chosen, every proposed project needs to clear three hurdles, said Patty Quinones, the district’s assistant superintendent for innovation. The work must allow students to develop a new technical skill or learn a new project management tool. The Innovation Center staff, which evaluates every proposal, seeks projects that allow students to develop each assignment from idea to finished product. The third criterion is to ensure that staff and students either have the skills to complete the work or will be given the time to learn a new skill and then put it into practice. The district has rejected proposals for not meeting these goals, Quinones added.
St. Vrain Valley’s successful partnering with companies is already leading to more projects for students. News of the underwater robot caught the attention of locals, and the city of Longmont is in the process of determining if it could use such a robot to check the condition of its water tanks without draining them, while the Denver Water utility wants a model that could deliver underwater videos of its dam infrastructure.
It’s no accident that St. Vrain decided to require this type of student learning. Longmont has a vibrant entrepreneurial community, said city manager Harold Dominguez. The area is second in the state only to Boulder in the ratio of patents produced per resident, and TinkerMill, a private makerspace, has 600 members who pay monthly dues to use the facility’s tools and take classes.
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Students with the skills to find creative solutions to problems “are a vital component to the future of our community,” Dominguez said. Because of the number of tech companies in the area, ranging from IBM to Google (which is nearly ready to open its own campus in Boulder) to startups such as the robotic toy company Sphero and the satellite imaging company DigitalGlobe, students can choose from a wide range of opportunities.
Reitzig said parents “appreciate that the job at the [Innovation Center] benefits their students in two ways: they receive pay and they get practical experience under the guidance of mentors.” The district’s longtime superintendent, Don Haddad, added that many of the students’ parents work at these companies, giving the district an easy ”in” to create the relationships.
For Sphero and its 170 employees, work with St. Vrain students started slowly. The company teamed with the district to establish an educational component for its robot toys in 2014. This year, students are working to design a Sphero “Olympic event” — an as-yet-undefined competition in which teams of students will pit the company’s robots against each other.
“Students provide their unique knowledge, understanding and perspective of robotic events and competitions to work with us,” said Danielle Hammernik, the company’s marketing manager for education.* The company hopes the event, which will be piloted this year, can go districtwide in 2018 and perhaps nationwide after that.
The district hopes that these kinds of experiences will prepare students for a new type of work called “no-collar.” These jobs are neither wholly white-collar nor blue-collar and don’t necessarily require a four-year college degree.
For example, St. Vrain Valley is one of the few districts in the country to train students to become Apple-certified: Once students pass the company’s stringent three-part test and turn 18, they can command jobs earning about $45,000 a year repairing Apple equipment. Also, the district started Colorado’s first Pathways in Technology Early College High School last year. In this program, modeled after the original P-TECH in Brooklyn, New York, students take six years to earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree. Front Range Community College and IBM helped create the school, and its graduates get special consideration for midlevel jobs with the technology company.
District officials have more that they want to do. The district’s English language learners, who make up roughly 15 percent of the student population, lag behind other students in their percentages declared proficient or advanced, as well as graduation rates.
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While St. Vrain is “pretty close” to giving every student a computer, and even kindergartners use the program Code-a-Pillar to write code on an iPad, it’s also not unusual to see high school seniors using paper and pencil to sketch out project designs.
The district plans to make a major upgrade next year. The Innovation Center, which hosts students from schools across the district’s 411 square miles, will expand to 50,000 square feet on 10 acres, adding a biomedical engineering lab and an aeronautics division where students can create remotely operated vehicles and conduct flight testing.
The district has earned both an Investing in Innovation grant ($3.6 million in 2010) and a Race to the Top grant ($16.6 million in 2012) from the federal Education Department. And in a state widely known for its reluctance to fund government programs, the St. Vrain district has succeeded in passing two consecutive mill levies (which raise residents’ property taxes every year) and one $260 million bond issue.
This support and the project-based learning approach have paid off in student achievement, Haddad said. St. Vrain Valley’s recent test results are the best the district has seen. According to administrators, all 52 of its schools ranked in the state’s top two achievement categories. Districtwide, last year, ratings went up for 10 schools and decreased for four; students took 3,500 Advanced Placement tests, 1,000 more than in 2016, administrators said.
But school officials are prouder to point to other achievements. On a pristine summer morning at Mountain View Elementary, with the Rockies providing a picturesque backdrop, fourth-grade teacher Courtney Groskin explained how a broken piece of playground equipment became an opportunity for her students. When the playground was shut down on the first day of school last year, the school’s oldest students set out to design a new one. After polling fellow students about their needs, and modifying a manufacturer’s equipment, the students designed their own one-of-a-kind playground. When it was installed in January, a fourth-grader told Groskin, “I’ve dreamed things, but I never had them come true.”
“We listen to our students,” Quinones said. “We value their opinions and they know it.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Ms. Hammernik’s title.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
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