By Heidi Ganahl

2017 has been a landmark year for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in Colorado. New laws passed during this year’s legislative session combined with significant progress on initiatives already underway mean that Colorado students have richer opportunities than ever before to gain the skills they need to succeed in the world of today, and the near future.

As a state-wide elected Regent in our education system, and a Colorado Succeeds board member, I wanted to break down the exciting developments happening in STEM education in our state this year, thanks in large part to policies and programs championed by Colorado Succeeds’ business coalition:

More students will have access to computer science and technology education

That’s because as Colorado’s academic standards are revised this year and next, technology skills will be added for the first time. Colorado has standards in 10 content areas; these provide a guide for schools and teachers on what students should know and learn from kindergarten through high school. Until now, these standards lacked guidance for integrating technology skills into Colorado’s classrooms.

Academic standards are one of the best ways to reach every Colorado student, as they set expectations statewide. Critically, they do not mandate a curriculum or how to teach the content, but rather offer benchmarks for what students should know. Incorporating technology skills across the content standards will help break down racial, socioeconomic, and gender disparities in developing such abilities. This will prepare more Colorado students for our growing need of graduates who understand technology and computer science – critical for STEM fields and beyond.

Educators will have greater access to computer science resources and materials

In another effort to increase opportunity, this will especially benefit small, rural, and less wealthy districts, many of which do not have access to resources available to urban and suburban schools. The creation of a new (and voluntary) computer science resource bank will help schools, districts, and educators statewide start or expand computer science programs without having to reinvent the wheel. This free resource bank represents a public-private partnership with Colorado Succeeds, industry leaders, and the Colorado Department of Education.

Tech industry professionals will able to co-teach in the classroom

Tech professionals now have the option to teach alongside certain educators in STEM classes. This is a real win-win-win; Students get to see what STEM looks like in the real world, educators benefit from an in-class expert, and business leaders get to share their relevant knowledge and experience directly with students.

Schools will be measured against a broader definition of success

It’s important that high schools be held accountable for graduating students ready to succeed as they take their next step. Whether that’s college, industry certifications, or the military, no student should have to backtrack, at their own expense, to take remedial courses.

At the same time, Colorado is long overdue in updating what “post-secondary and workforce readiness” means and the variety of ways it is measured. Whether that measure be success in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, ACT scores, concurrent enrollment courses, or attainment of industry credentials or college credits while in high school, this decision will provide flexibility to districts to demonstrate how their schools are preparing Colorado’s students for the future. Critically, by 2020, 74 percent of jobs in Colorado will require a post-secondary credential.

Students now have option to earn a new STEM-endorsed diploma

Much like magna cum laude designation recognizes a college graduate who has gone above and beyond the standard graduation requirements, the STEM diploma endorsement will serve as a mark of distinction for high school students who demonstrate mastery in one or more of the STEM fields. This provides industry and higher education with a clear and valued signal of students’ STEM knowledge and skills, as well as their ability to further excel in such fields.

The endorsement will be a challenge to obtain and includes a minimum set of rigorous criteria, including a capstone project where the student works in partnership with local industry. The bar must be set high for such a distinction to be valued and meaningful.

Increased opportunities for districts to offer their students associate’s degrees

Pathway in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) are a new type of school that bridges high school, community college, and the workplace into one seamless, six-year pathway. Students graduating from a P-TECH school will enter Colorado’s workforce with valuable professional skills in addition to their diploma and associate’s degree.

While P-TECH was first brought to Colorado in 2015, this new law increases the model’s flexibility by allowing programs both in standalone schools and within existing high schools. These changes will support the program’s expansion in our state and, in turn, provide more opportunities for students to excel after high school.

These exciting 2017 wins build on existing efforts to boost STEM education in Colorado. Coupled together, they position our state as a national leader on STEM.

Here are some updates on Colorado’s other key STEM initiatives our business coalition has led and continues to see through:

Increased opportunities for students to earn in-demand industry credentials

In 2016, Colorado Succeeds led the development and passage of a the Career Success Program, which provides schools with up to $1,000 for each student who:

  • Completes an industry certification linked to high demand jobs,
  • Finishes a rigorous postsecondary internship, residency, or apprenticeship program tied to key industry needs, or
  • Successfully completes a Computer Science Advanced Placement course.

But passing policy is the just the first step in affecting change. To support schools in leveraging this innovative program and its funding, Colorado Succeeds is working to ensure more districts across the state know about the program by providing training and technical support. We even hosted 14 districts for a day-long workshop last year which featured experts from the Colorado Department of Education and Workforce Development Council. Watch these videos to see how the program is working in Salida, St. Vrain, and Grand Junction schools.

Opened three P-TECH schools in Colorado

One of the highlights of the 2016-17 school year was the opening of Colorado’s first P-TECH schools. Located in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, Falcon District 49, and St. Vrain Valley School District, these three schools will put participating students on a pathway to success lifelong.

As my fellow Colorado Succeeds member, Ray Johnson of IBM has said, “Employer engagement is essential to solve the disconnect between what’s being taught in schools and what industry needs. Industry and education have to do a better a job of preparing our students to fill the huge skills gap in everything from high tech to healthcare.”

Launched new career pathways for Colorado students

Legislation passed in 2015 began to have a tangible impact, as the state created career pathways for students in construction and skilled trades, information technology, and healthcare – all growing industries in Colorado.

The pathways include provisions that allow students to learn industry-related skills and find jobs in the sector, including internships and apprenticeships. They also provide opportunities for students to advance to higher levels of employment or education.

Computer science included graduation requirements

Next year, there will also be new computer science academic standards for high school students. Once the standards are adopted in July 2018, districts can incorporate them into local standards, including local graduation guidelines, thanks to legislation passed in 2016.

Once that happens, students will be able to count computer science courses toward graduation requirements in math and science. Colorado Succeeds members are supporting the creation of the new computer science standards through a Standards Task Force that will meet this June and on an as-needed basis to support implementation of these new standards.

Clearly, our coalition is moving the needle on STEM in Colorado, from research and policy development to passage and implementation. And we’ll continue our work to provide relevant, rigorous, and engaging learning experiences for all Colorado students so they are prepared to lead the world they will soon inherit.

Heidi Ganahl is a former member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents and served on the Board of Directors for Colorado Succeeds.