STEM education

Montrose biomedical students study a crime scene devised by their instructor, Emarae Garcia, who received in-depth training teaching STEM curricula from educational nonprofit Project Lead the Way. (Courtesy photo) 


What do you want to be when you grow up?

Marilyn Jones of Telluride already knows: “I want to be an animator!” 

Jones, 9, is about to enter the fourth grade.

Dawson Gurule, of Montrose, is still deciding. Last year, he was thinking about becoming an engineer. Today, “I’m leaning toward being a power lineman.”

Gurule, 17, is a high school senior. 

Both of these students, and many more in this region, are likely to get their wishes, if “wishing” is defined as picturing where you see yourself as an adult — and then receiving a whopping dose of inspiration and assistance to set you on your path. 

Indeed, Montrose High School even uses the word “path” in its description of a course — or, rather, a series of courses that kids get to choose from — to “help you reach your future career/educational goal.” 

Education is undergoing a sea of change. As Montrose High School counselor Krista Brundage puts it, “The question is no longer, ‘What college are you going to?’ It’s really, ‘What career field do you want?’ Or more broadly, ‘What do you want to achieve?’” 

Asking kids what they would like to be, rather than suggesting this is where we think you should end up (which, in turn, implies this is how we see you) is not only a generous, inclusive form of education. Above all, it is practical. And at the root of much of it is STEM. 

A Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is an excellent launching-point for a career. 

“The future of the economy is in STEM,” James Brown, the executive director of the nonprofit STEM Education Coalition, has pointed out. “That’s where the jobs of tomorrow will be.” 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment in STEM fields “to grow about 13 percent between 2012 and 2022,” according to a report in the Occupational Outlook Quarterly, “faster than the 11-percent rate of growth projected for all occupations over the decade.” 

STEM workers are less likely to experience joblessness; what’s more, these jobs are generally more lucrative than non-STEM-related employment. A U.S. Department of Commerce study found that, on average, STEM workers “with a high-school diploma or less” earn 59.6 percent more than their peers in other fields; STEM workers with “some college or an associate degree” earn 40 percent more. 

Here is a look at how a couple of local institutions are using STEM principles to set their students up for growth.


In Montrose, STEM teaching and learning will soon cut across all grade levels. “By this time next year we will be the first Colorado K-12 STEM school district,” Montrose County School District Superintendent Stephen Schiell recently told a reporter from the Montrose Daily Press. 

Montrose High School is one of the first schools in the state to utilize “STEM Pathways” to help students reach what it calls “postsecondary and workforce” goals. College can be part of that equation — but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. For example, “You can leave here looking at going into Computer Technology,” Brundage says. Such a path might lean towards Career and Technical Education, or CTE (formerly called “vocational” learning). 

Through its relationship with an educational nonprofit that emphasizes STEM learning called Project Lead the Way (PLTW), Montrose offers career paths in computer science, engineering and biomedical. PLTW’s mission is to empower students to develop “in-demand, transportable knowledge and skills” by emphasizing problem-solving strategies, critical and creative thinking, and communication and collaboration. (More than 10,000 elementary, middle and high schools in all 50 states offer PLTW programs. To learn more, visit 

Dawson Gurule, for example, enrolled in PLTW’s Introduction to Engineering Design in his junior year; this year, he is taking Principles of Engineering and Digital Electronics courses along the same path. As a result of PLTW’s relationship with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, which offers preferred admittance to its College of Engineering and Applied Science for students who achieve a “B” or higher on three PLTW courses, “If he takes an exam and gets a certain score, Dawson won’t have to take engineering courses” if he enrolls at CU (a school he is considering), said Lorraine Shide, coordinator of the high school’s post-secondary and workforce readiness center. 

Dawson likes engineering not only because the skills he learns will help him land an interesting job — he also enjoys the subject matter. 

“The classes are awesome,” he said. “I love them. Mr. Simpson is such a cool teacher.” 

In fact, engineering instructor Brian Simpson is one of Montrose’s star teachers — his classes have had a waiting list to get in — who has put his students in touch with luminaries of a different sort: football stars. Simpson received the Denver Broncos’ “Tackle STEM” Coach of the Month award last year; the award was a reward for his students, who got to travel with Simpson to Sports Authority Field in Denver to learn about the technical side of a Broncos game. 

On the playing field, for example, Simpson’s students got a tutorial on how the grass had been totally refurbished. 

“They met the man who ran that field, who explained how they developed a hybrid grass table to withstand being mowed three to four times a week,” Simpson said. “They learned about the heaters installed beneath the field that are designed to melt snow, and the piping underneath it that can suck water off the surface when it rains.” 

In the control room, the kids came to fully understand the wonder of instant replay cameras, which can immediately disclose the truth about a controversial play the referees are likely still discussing, and beam that footage out into the stadium for the fans to see — and noisily react to. “We can throw that clip up instantly” along with flashing lights and music “and help get the crowd energized,” a cameraman explained. “If it’s a fourth down with inches to go, it might not sway the game. But it can’t hurt.”

The Broncos adventure offered students a hands-on immersion in the science behind the way the world works — exactly what STEM learning is supposed to do. Scott Pankow, the superintendent and principal of the Ouray school, has been “doing alignment work” with the Ridgway schools to introduce STEM learning to both institutions. 

“We have brilliance in pieces, but we need to pull it all together,” Pankow said. “Small districts like ours rarely even have physics classes. We have, for years. But now we have to bring kids up earlier, so when they go into high school physics or Advance Placement Chemistry, they’ll hit the ground running. Hopefully by 2018-2019, we should have a pretty good program in place.” 

STEM in Telluride

Meanwhile, in Telluride, the Pinhead Institute is offering hands-on, STEM learning to, well, almost everybody. The new STEM Laboratory at Telluride High School, which was equipped by a donation from the Pinhead Institute, has been operating for a year. It had been a goal of Executive Director Sarah Holbrooke’s to appeal to every type of student — including those who dislike school. Thus, the lab was kitted out with everything from high-tech to soldering equipment used by science teacher Derek Engebretsen in his Science of Construction and Design class. This year, Pinhead is partnering with the Telluride Middle School by teaching its technology survey class for seventh-and-eighth-grade students.

Just like the Montrose schools, the Smithsonian affiliate is reaching out to the younger set. Nine-year-old Marilyn Jones has already done coding in her Pinhead classes. 

Not only has Marilyn’s work been hands-on, it is applicable to the real world. 

“She’s brought home some stuff that you can actually use,” said her mother, Stacy Ticsay, “like a phone case that she designed on the 3D printer. It’s really cutting-edge stuff. We’re very lucky the kids have that exposure to a 3D printer.” 

Said Jones, “I like it because it’s really cool and science-y, and I like science.” 

If students can’t make it to Telluride, it seems, Pinhead will go to them. The nonprofit’s Punk Science programs are in regional libraries in Norwood and Ridgway as well as Telluride, and the nonprofit works with 11 area schools (and has sponsored five different regional Robotics teams). 

“Last year the Paradox Robotics team made state finals, right out of the box. That’s pretty unusual,” Holbrooke said. 


Some of the best parts about STEM Science is the creative synergy that it seems to spawn. For example, Colorado Mesa University is also collaborating with local schools. 

“We have a lot of kids from Olathe and Montrose taking concurrent classes at CMU in career and technical programs,” said Gary Ratcliff, the director of Colorado Mesa University’s Montrose campus. These programs prepare kids for certification in a field immediately following graduation; the college’s Computer Network Technician program, for example, is affiliated with the tech giant Cisco. 

“It’s wide open,” Ratcliff said of the possibilities the courses afford kids. “We have Medical Prep classes for students who want to explore health sciences. One of our most popular programs is that of a Certified Nursing Aide. We have concurrent programs in early childhood education and a program that allows you to become a Veterinary Technician. Say I’m thinking about becoming a vet. This is a kind of bridging program — a springboard to starting your college career.”

Whichever field a student chooses, the training can take place before they graduate from high school. The courses are all geared toward certification, Ratcliffe said, so students can begin working immediately in their chosen field. 

“Not every student can excel at Advanced Placement, and this provides another way for them to take courses in high school and get ahead,” he said. “The folks at Pinhead are most curious and enthusiastic about all of this.”

 Indeed, Pinhead has been more than curious when it comes to Montrose High School — the nonprofit has also reached out, offering to share guest speakers who are en route to or from the box canyon. 

“Last year they had an astrophysicist visit,” Lorraine Shide recalled. “The high school is right on the way from the airport to Telluride; Sarah called and asked if I was interested in having this scientist stop by. Was I ever!” Shide quickly arranged a lecture (“we filled the library”). 

“Pinhead has been very generous,” she said. “This is the kind of speaker that we don’t have the budget for.”

While local STEM programs — Pinhead included — are working hard to reach out, they must also act quickly. It can be difficult to keep up in such fast-changing fields. As engineering instructor Brian Simpson put it, “The challenge is, I’m trying to teach students things that I don’t even know are out there yet, because the jobs don’t yet exist. I’m teaching for the known and the unknown. I tell my students, ‘We’ve chosen to overprepare you for whatever you will face.’”

“Every day,” he said, “my curriculum changes, because the world just doesn’t stop.”