Empowering the Future

  • Written by: Caroline Grundy
  • Photos by: Aaron Ford and Caroline Grundy

Graduating seniors speak with younger students about life and their school experience. Public education inspires, transforms and is the catalyst to a thriving future.

Across our schools, students from grades PK-12 are problem-solving real-world issues. From influencing legislation, to advocating for their environment, to designing inventions for positive change – there is no limit to what St. Vrain students can achieve.

Testing water chemistry, raising trout to revitalize a river’s ecosystem, collecting data on macroinvertebrate biodiversity, and making recommendations to a town ecology board may seem like jobs reserved for those with a Ph.D.; however, Lyons Elementary and Lyons Middle Senior High School students have been trained to do these exact tasks through a partnership with their local scientific community called the Outdoor Science and Leadership Program.

When the Town of Lyons was devastated in 2013 by record levels of rain causing flash floods, countless volunteers, community members, and organizations banded together to repair the town – and no hands were too small to help with the effort. It was the lasting environmental damages from the flood, coupled with the staff of Lyons Elementary’s desire for their science curriculum to incorporate their beautiful ecosystem, that became the impetus for the Outdoor Science and Leadership Program. Principal of Lyons Elementary, Andrew Moore, speaks passionately about the program, “The biggest thing we have learned through this process is that when we provide students with the opportunity to have true student agency, their level of engagement soars. When they know they have the ability to make a difference in their environment through authentic research, their curiosity and investment in the diligence of their work increases tremendously.”

Elementary students partner with high school students to ensure that data collection protocols are managed accurately and effectively. The high school students are trained and supported by various scientific organizations from the State River Watch program, to the Estes Park Environmental Center, to the Town of Lyons Ecology Board Members. This past year, students made a series of recommendations for the St. Vrain Creek based on their evaluation of water chemistry and macroinvertebrate biodiversity. Another group of 13 St. Vrain students from Erie High School (EHS) and Skyline High School (SHS) was inspired to create a positive impact based on the effects of several major natural disasters in 2017. The students observed that emergency response teams had trouble rescuing people who had been stranded during a disaster and they utilized technology to create a solution. Working together at the district’s Innovation Center, EHS and SHS students designed a portable rescue beacon intended to be stored in home first aid kits to help rescue people in need. The beacon receives and transmits GPS signal over radio frequency to a drone, and the drone then transmits the signal to the emergency responder’s master station. The team of students was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT program to design their emergency rescue system; St. Vrain was the only district in Colorado to receive the grant.

Kelsey Rasmussen is the teacher and program coordinator for the Erie High School Academy of Engineering and Aerospace who supported the Erie students through the project which they ultimately presented at MIT in Cambridge, MA. As a former trace metal geochemical researcher, Rasmussen always needed to connect her work in the lab to how it would help people. She told her students, “If you are not going to be interested in a year, do not pick this topic. It has to be something you care about.” Rasmussen believes engineering allows the opportunity to connect academic standards with the real world saying, “It’s empowering to students to realize they do not need to have a Ph.D. before they can help – before they are technically adults, they can still have an impact.”

Senior Design student, Tanner David, shares that his experience through the project “helped shape my future by giving me more knowledge in how to deal with a massive scale problem and create a tangible solution to this problem without really any guidelines.” Tanner plans to pursue a degree in electrical engineering or aviation upon graduation from high school where he intends to “continue to use this experience to help others.”

“Civic engagement is the whole hope for students as they leave our programs and our schools. They will have the knowledge and skills they need to make changes in the world and the belief that they can make a difference. ”

Alex Armstrong, IB Program Coordinator, Sunset Middle School

Photo: Dale Peterson, Niwot Elementary teacher, helps students place their painted handprints on the shipping container classrooms during the project’s closing celebration.

The Niwot Feeder has been using design to bridge international communities and improve our increasingly globalized world. What started as a pen pal relationship between Niwot Elementary and students at the Mwebaza School in Uganda more than 10 years ago has transformed into a cross Atlantic exchange in more ways than paper. Dale Peterson, teacher at Niwot Elementary, started the Mwebaza Foundation and expanded the foundation to work with Homes of Living Hope based out of Louisville, CO to repurpose shipping containers to serve as classrooms for communities in need. Speaking on the value of the project, Peterson says, “There is an empowerment that happens when kids do something for someone else that will inspire them to want to do that in the future.”

Just a few miles north of Niwot Elementary, Sunset Middle School students were responsible for designing a prototype for a middle school shipping container classroom in Uganda. “This project is about seeing a need in the world and doing something to help meet that need. Students are having authentic interactions with local organizations and getting a sense of opportunities that can help the world,” says IB Program Coordinator at Sunset Middle, Alex Armstrong. Armstrong asserts that oftentimes students find solutions to problems that adults do not come up with. In this case, students advocated to include an outdoor patio and second story for the classroom in their proposal.

The project has required a heavy lift from the Niwot Feeder and additional community members, with Peterson estimating that almost 1,000 individuals have participated. After the Sunset Middle students created scale drawings and printed 3D models of their prototypes, they presented their ideas to architects and the executive directors of several local organizations. Niwot High students volunteered to make the design a reality by building out the containers, while Career Development Center (CDC) students offered their welding expertise in the construction of the classroom. On the importance of student civic engagement, Armstrong responds, “Civic engagement is the whole hope for students as they leave our programs and our schools. They will have the knowledge and skills they need to make changes in the world and the belief that they can make a difference.”

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