Over the past seven years, with little fanfare and almost entirely under the radar until recently, the 3,000-student Englewood School District has built one of the best Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs in Colorado.
The district has become a STEM powerhouse thanks to long-range planning, visionary leaders, strong partnerships with local businesses, and substantial investment from a Denver-based philanthropic foundation.
Every school in the district now has a state-of-the-art STEM lab. A fabrication lab inside the district’s main educational complex allows students to work with laser engravers, 3-D printers, and other high-tech machinery to produce everything from go-karts to jewelry.
But it wasn’t always that way. “Ten years ago, this district was in trouble. Many thought it would be absorbed” into a neighboring district, said Bill Gilmore, Englewood’s STEM coordinator, who has played a key role in building the program. Back then, STEM was all but nonexistent. There was a woodshop and a place for kids to learn small engine repair, but that was about it.
That began to change about seven years ago, when Englewood was hit with the state’s lowest rating: “accredited with turnaround plan,” which meant if the district didn’t get serious about improving, the state would intervene.
District leaders launched community conversations about how to transform the district so that it would provide students with an education to prepare them for post-secondary options – college, certification programs, or job training – sustainable careers.
Robust STEM education emerged as the best path forward, and the community bought in. A $50 million bond issue passed in 2011 funded construction of the Englewood Campus, which houses the districts two middle schools and Englewood High School.
Each of the middle schools and the high school have their own STEM labs, and the Fab Lab is available to high school students ready for higher-level work.
This year, Englewood’s three elementary schools that lacked STEM labs opened with labs up and running, thanks to a $400,000 grant from the Denver-based Gill Foundation. That makes Englewood the second district in the nation to establish STEM labs in every school in the district, according to Superintendent Wendy Rubin.
“What attracted us to Englewood is a constellation of really cool activities,” said Denise M. Whinnen, director of Colorado strategies for the Gill Foundation. “From the building level to the highest levels of administration, there is an absolute commitment to STEM and to changing the trajectory of the lives of high minority, low income student population in their school district. All of that made it appealing.”
The STEM project also landed squarely in the foundation’s sweet spot. Founder Tim Gill and board co-chair Scott Miller are the driving forces around this work to expand opportunity for all kids in STEM education,” Whinnen said.
“Often kids of color and girls don’t see themselves in STEM programs, which often are implemented at middle school and high school, which is too late,” Whinnen said. “By then the culture of the room tends to be very white-upper-middle-class-boy-oriented, so girls and kids of color don’t see themselves as having a place in those classrooms.”
By starting STEM in elementary school, as Englewood now does, “we hope we can change this perception and that will have a transformative effect on diversifying the kids who go into these programs.”
At the high school level, Englewood has robust partnerships with a number of businesses, colleges, governmental agencies, and nonprofits, all of which provide students with hands-on experiences and an opportunity to earn industry credentials before they graduate.
Industry partners include behemoths like Lockheed Martin Space Systems as well as other businesses, including Reata Engineering and Machine Works, and Palmer Drives, Controls, and Systems. Higher education partners include the Colorado School of Mines, Arapahoe Community College, Metropolitan State College of Denver, and University of Colorado – Colorado Springs.
Government partners range from the U.S. Geological Survey to the Littleton/Englewood Wastewater Treatment Plant. And nonprofits include Mile High United Way and One World One Water, as well as the Gill Foundation.
Gilmore has established an advisory committee for the STEM program. He strives for balanced representation from all partnership sectors, as well as parents and students. “It’s important that it stay balanced so we’re not hearing just one voice,” Gilmore said.
In addition, each Career and Technical Education (CTE) program also has its own advisory committee run by that program’s lead teacher.
High school students can follow one of three career pathways: Natural Resources, which includes a Sustainable Agriculture and Green Energy program; Robotics, Advanced Manufacturing, Aerospace, and Engineering; and Computer Science.
By next year, Englewood hopes to have identified industry certification opportunities in each of the career pathways, Gilmore said.
The cohesive and comprehensive STEM experiences offered in Englewood are the result of thoughtful and detailed planning. Gilmore and his team have meticulously mapped out what skills and competencies students must develop at every grade level in the computer science strand, and are working on a similar document for the other STEM fields.
In computer science, for example, students in the primary grades (pre-K through second) learn how to use tools creatively to solve problems and to express themselves, develop key 21st century skills such as persistence, problem-solving and taking initiative, and be creative with technology.
By the middle school years, they develop competencies and skills including the ability to create simulations and modeling, demonstrate logic and problem solving, and use of a digital portfolio to track all projects.
Englewood’s STEM focus has played a significant role in pulling the district out of the bottom tier of districts in Colorado. It has infused students with enthusiasm and a vision for what their future might hold. Visiting the Fab Lab, you see students working independently and in teams, intensely focused on the project at hand.
The instructor is present, but allows students the freedom to learn by doing, with minimal interference.
For students and teachers alike, the new approach is “cool and daunting all at once,” Gilmore said. “It takes patience and perseverance on everyone’s part. If you push hard enough, eventually there will a lot of failure. It needs to be failure in a positive way. That’s what you want. That’s how you learn.”