The clang of pipes and construction workers’ sweat permeates the school’s roughhewn hallways. Until May, this place thrived as Frederick Elementary—part of the St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD). Now it’s the end of July. Men dolly cinderblocks across half-lit classrooms, and shimmy sideways hauling slabs of drywall. They’re caught in a ten-day rush job to complete renovation in time before the building safety and health code inspectors come. Before the mid-August unveiling of Spark! Discovery, Colorado’s first STEM-focused preschool.
“It isn’t about little kids running around in lab coats,” clarifies Paige Gordon, head of Spark! Discovery. Rather, it’s about “the integration of 21st century skills.” Don’t worry, the jungle gym and “You Are My Sunshine” sing-alongs shall remain. But expect the addition of iPads, a 3D printer, Cubelets robot construction kits, and interactive educational installations like wind tunnels and immense marble runs for studying momentum. After all, some of the leading technology toy companies and startups are around Boulder County, like SparkFun Electronics, Modular Robotics, and Kodo Kids. It’s the least you’d expect from schools surrounding the media-dubbed “New Silicon Valley.”
The main focus for Spark! involves problem solving. For example, years back, Gordon ran a pilot lesson where ten preschoolers, assisted by their parents, volunteered in building an indoor city using appliance cardboard boxes from Home Depot. “The kids had to think about the design and layout,” says Gordon. “If everyone built a princess castle, would that be cool or not?” (At the time, Tangled was still in movie theaters.) Two architects aided the 4-hour challenge, and the result was this Sim City-style sandbox creation replete with a library and a zip-line mail system between micro-scale skyscrapers.
Design and redesign and the processes entailed are skills many STEM programs focus on. Gordon hopes to strengthen the ambitious “solve anything” mindset found in young kids, which, she says, tends to go by the wayside between the 3rd and 5th grade. This type of reach has been done before but in smaller, more private models. For instance, a group of professors at California Polytechnic State University created such a preschool “on campus for their kids.” The undertaking with Spark! Discovery Preschool will emulate this approach—and it’s only part of a larger transformation in SVVSD.
Last December, the U.S. Department of Education allocated money to 16 districts nationwide as part of the “Race to the Top” grant to advance the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in schools. St. Vrain won $16.6 million to do so; and it was the only district chosen in Colorado. Already a wearisome buzzword from the 2000s, “STEM” has been touted for long, but practiced little. Till now. The past three years have seen a growth in science-savvy curriculums across private schools, the SVVSD and schools with Project Lead the Way curricular programs. Tossed into the mix, advising students or preparing labs, are companies like IBM and biotechnology company Amgen, which recently held a classroom experiment at Legacy High School growing bacteria strains.
What we’re encountering is the dawn of a new educational ideal in America, reinvesting in its future economic development. That future is STEM. Computer systems analysts, web developers, software engineers. Demand in these industries has prompted us to prepare younger generations. That outreach has trickled down from the university level to high schools to elementary and, now, to preschool. While problem-solving skills are certainly applicable in any industry—artists, entrepreneurs, etc.—it is our responsibility to restructure education to empower students with the know-how to succeed in this recovering economy.
This reinvention is akin to the transition found in the book Midnight’s Children. Newborns on the eve of India’s independence have innate “gifts.” Telepathy. Witch-like powers. Time travel. Just as they were born into a land of promising enrichment, so too is Generation Z—exposed to a tech-endowed world and with them the hope to revitalize America’s workforce. (Minus the supernatural powers, of course.)