What do biomimicry, heart valves, and acid mine drainage (AMD) all have in common? Besides being topics that most of us have to Google to understand, they also are subjects in which the students at Thornton’s STEM Launch K-8 School are experts – and they’re not afraid to show it.

In fact, a group of eighth graders from STEM Launch recently pitched their idea for a new heart valve design to the Colorado Succeeds team using a Shark Tank-style presentation. We must admit, we were ready to invest in them!

STEM Launch graphicSTEM Launch is not your average school, and the difference can be felt from the moment you walk through the doors. Far from the typical front office, visitors to STEM Launch are greeted by a life-size astronaut that subtly reminds students to aim high and reach for the stars. Even the school’s motto – fail fast and pivot – illustrates the unique approach the administration takes to educating its students, who are referred to as “scholars” in the STEM Launch vernacular. These scholars as well as their teachers are encouraged to take risks and push boundaries to achieve their goals.

As a STEM-based school – STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – data-based decision making is engrained into the fabric of the school. Teachers regularly examine students’ data and modify instructional approaches in order to drive continuous improvement. Test data is publicly posted in each classroom, creating a sense of ownership among students and teachers and helping both to maintain their focus. In addition, student growth is celebrated as much as proficiency in this school, where 85% of the school’s population qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) and 90% of the students are English language learners (ELL).

With such a diverse group of learners, STEM Launch places a particular emphasis on meeting each students’ unique needs with the appropriate academic and social/emotional supports. Younger students can take classes in higher grade levels if their learning needs dictate it. The result is that there is absolute clarity on the desired outcomes for each individual student, and teachers map backwards from those outcomes to identify goals and strategies on an annual, monthly, weekly, and daily basis.

Thanks to the unflagging faith that STEM Launch principal Kellie Lauth has in her staff, the teaching team is empowered to make decisions they feel are best for their students, whether it is a particular instructional approach or a new teaching tool. In fact, Ms. Lauth places such a premium on teacher quality that she invests the majority of her budget on professional development to ensure the staff receive the support they need and remain up-to-date on the latest technology and topics. After all, “If a teacher doesn’t challenge themselves, how can we expect a student to?” asks one STEM Launch teacher.

STEM Launch is also an exemplar when it comes to leveraging the local business community to support learning. The school has established partnerships with more than 200 private companies and universities to bring real-world problems into the classroom. Using problem-based learning (PBL) methods, teachers present students with a challenge. Students then work with outside experts to examine possible solutions and technologies that might effectively solve the problem, and ultimately present their findings to the experts themselves. Rather than trying to find the perfect solution the first time, the focus at STEM Launch is on the problem-solving process itself, and failure is encouraged so that students build confidence and improve over time. The result is learning that is fun, student-driven, and effective.

So what’s next for this amazing group of scholars at STEM Launch K-8 School? Well, they told us that someday they expect to be biomedical engineers, zoologists, architects, mechanical engineers, and physicians. One eighth grader is already looking forward to attending the Ohio State University, where he will study clinical psychology. With the support of Ms. Lauth and the dedicated STEM Launch teachers, we have no doubt they will accomplish those goals and then some.

By Scott Laband
Colorado Succeeds