St. Vrain Valley students build prototypes to solve world problems

St. Vrain Valley elementary students this week dreamed up sprawling, cardboard school playground prototypes that included pools, zip lines, rocks walls, carousels and tunnels.

They used pipe cleaners, bottle caps, Popsicle sticks and various other bits and pieces to represent their design ideas, then presented to other students and talked about what changes they would make if they had more time.

"When you use the design process, the learning never ends," teacher Marnie Steele told her young builders. "There's always something new you can add or change. That's the design thinking attitude you need to have."

About 240 students, entering first through sixth grades, are enrolled in the two-week summer Innovation Academy, a collaboration between the St. Vrain Valley School District and IBM that's in its sixth year.

Students, who are nominated by teachers and selected by a committee, spend a week at IBM in Boulder and a week at Longmont's Skyline High School in the Innovation Center.

At IBM, they take tours, hear from IBM guest speakers and work with IBM volunteers on various design projects. The second week, they pick one problem to solve and design a solution. The program ends with an exhibition where students present their projects to the public.

"They come up with the coolest ideas," said Becky Peters, program manager at the district's Innovation Center. "They've been designing some really awesome stuff."

St. Vrain teachers lead the classes, while high school students volunteer to help, doing everything from keeping the students organized to taking pictures and blogging. Innovation Center student workers also teach a robotics lessons.

The goal is to solve real-world problems, with students working in teams to explore topics like transportation, energy, cities, food and communications that are part of IBM's Smart Planet initiatives.

They're using the design process to develop solutions to a problem, brainstorming, building prototypes and gathering feedback.

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