STEM camp encourages SVVSD students to tackle big problems
By Amy Bounds, Times-Call
Victoria Hoppis’ vision for a more sustainable city includes a park with treadmills, yoga mats, dog leashes for rent and a pond that makes bubbles that find and clean air pollution.
“We have trees because we need more trees,” the incoming sixth-grader at Erie Middle School said Wednesday as she explained the highlights of the city prototype she created with her group at the St. Vrain Valley School District’s Innovation Academy.
Teammate Brielle Wach, an incoming fifth-grader at Central Elementary School, noted the dog leashes will include a hollow spot for poop bags and air fresheners.
“The smell is a reoccurring problem with my dog, and I don’t even try to smell it when I pick it up,” she said, adding that she signed up for the Innovation Academy because she loves engineering and robots. “I love this. It’s fun to cooperate with people and use materials to solve problems.”
The Innovation Academy, a two-week summer STEM program for incoming first- through sixth-graders, is a collaboration between the school district and IBM that’s in its ninth year.
About 250 students, eight from each of the district’s school plus the APEX homeschool program, are invited after being selected by teachers. Tuition is on a sliding scale.
Students split their time between IBM and the district’s new Innovation Center. At IBM, they take tours, hear from IBM guest speakers and work on various design projects.
The second week, students move to the Innovation Center, where they pick a problem to solve and design a solution. The program ends with a project exhibition.
“We’re really reinforcing that failure is totally fine,” said Sean Flynn, an eighth-grade science teacher at Coal Ridge Middle School during the school year. “I want them to know that they can build anything they can dream. Uninhibited creativity is what’s on display here.”
Incoming Alpine Elementary fourth-grader Lucho Barandiaran’s group, for example, came up with skyways that would circle Denver, with trains on one side and walkways on the other. The support pillars house elevators.
“It’s really easy to get around,” he said. “You don’t have to get caught up in traffic.”
While St. Vrain teachers lead the classes, students in Skyline High School’s Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools, or P-TECH program, work as mentors and are in charge of producing a professional level video documenting the Innovation Academy.
IBM partners with St. Vrain and Front Range Community College on the P-TECH program, with more than 100 IBM employees volunteering their time to work with the P-TECH students. IBM employees also have taught classes for the P-TECH students.
The Innovation Academy students on Wednesday also took part in a “flip the switch” ceremony for IBM’s new solar array, which has nearly 25,000 solar panels on a 55-acre site. Though the array won’t be be completely finished until July, IBM officials held the ceremony early to include the students.
Incoming Altona Middle School seventh-grader Maria Arrece, who attended the Innovation Academy all through elementary school and now is volunteering as a mentor, joined a P-TECH student in flipping the switch.
“I love building things, and I love anything to do with STEM,” said Maria, whose sister, an incoming first-grader, is attending this year. “It’s just fun to have a camp where you can use your creativity and imagination. It’s really cool how you can solve real world problems.”
Students in the Innovation Academy work in teams to explore topics like transportation, energy, cities and communications that are part of IBM’s Smart Planet initiatives. This year, solar power was an overarching theme.
In the energy group, incoming Fall River Elementary fifth-grader Reese Winters worked with her team to build a prototype of a solar powered phone, adding tiny solar panels to both the phone and a PopSocket phone grip.
“It charges through the sunlight and has a back-up battery,” Reese said. “In the winter, light reflected on the snow would charge it.”
The project wasn’t without its challenges. The original plan to attach the phone grip with a straw didn’t work, prompting the team to add more materials plus glue.
“We had to use several rounds of hot glue to get it to work,” Reese said.
Along with prototyping, students also get lessons on building simple machines — wedges, pulleys, and wheels and axles — that they can add to their final projects.
Kierstin Glaze, an incoming fourth-grader at Soaring Heights K-8, and her group used a pulley in their prototype of a more walkable city to bring down a gate to stop cars, keep pedestrians and cyclists safe. Other features included a blue strip of “river” to generate hydroelectric power, test tubes representing geothermal energy and bottle caps for biofuels.
“I like building,” she said. “I like everything we’re doing.”