Boulder County schools turn to STEM to engage students, fight 'summer slide'

The challenge of designing traps for invasive and poisonous cane toads caught the imaginations of incoming fourth-graders at Longmont's Columbine Elementary.

The students, participating in a STEM-based summer learning program, enthusiastically built and tested prototypes of toad traps from cardboard, straws, plastic cups and other materials.

Before they started building, they investigated the problem.

Cane toads, they said, were introduced in Australia to control beetles. But the poisonous toads, with few natural predators, instead became the pests.

"It started being a big problem," said incoming fourth-grader Elijah Aguirre.

Each group came up with a different trap design.

One built a contraption with a weighted cup attached to a string to pull down a box over the toad. Another used a shoebox with a concealed hole in the top and a pipe cleaner insect as bait.

After that second group tested its design using a golf ball as the toad, the students widened the hole in the top of the box to make sure their toad would fit. When their modified design worked in the next test, the students erupted in cheers.

"You have to keep trying and add some stuff," Ashley Aguilar said.

STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — projects are at the core St. Vrain Valley's summer programs.

The goal is stopping or slowing the "summer slide."

Research shows that, by the time students are in ninth grade, as much as two-thirds of the achievement gap for low-income students can be attributed to summer learning loss -— a loss that also requires students to spend the first month or two of the school year relearning material.

Officials say the advantage of STEM-based programs over more traditional summer classes is the level of student engagement.

"We want to make it the most engaging that we can," said Columbine Principal Audrey Seybold. "It's summer camp instead of summer school."


Kodi Graff, 6, raises his hand to answer a question during a presentation by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science at Columbine Elementary School in Longmont last week. (Lewis Geyer / Daily Camera Staff Photographer)