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Innovation Center Provides New Opportunities for Thousands of Students

September 29, 2018

Niwot High School junior Davita Bird and Niwot High School freshman Caitlyn Fong check a circuit on a motor for an underwater vehicle Friday in the Robotics Lab at St. Vrain Valley School District's Innovation Center. See more photos at timescall.com.

Remember being bored out of your mind in high school, wondering when you were ever going use the knowledge they were force feeding you. Well, those days are over for students in the St. Vrain Valley School District thanks to the new Innovation Center.

With advanced classes and state-of-the-art classrooms, students at the Innovation Center can get hands-on experience in fields such as information technology, robotics, computer science, virtual reality, aeronautics, entrepreneurship, engineering, manufacturing, broadcasting and biomedical engineering.

“Kids no longer need to just sit in rows and have us tell them what they need to learn because we adults really don’t know,” said Becky Peters, the Innovation Center’s program manager. “These kids are far more capable than we often give them credit for so we let them go and let them guide it a little.”

After they complete a class, not only do students receive a professional certification and college credit, but the Innovation Center also will hire them to fulfill private contracts with businesses ranging from IBM and Apple to the Denver Zoo and Boulder County.

Zach Gillett, a homeschooled senior, and his team of fellow high schoolers were hired by Boulder County to build an aquatic robot that can accurately measure the depth of the lakes and reservoirs around the county using echolocation. Others built a robot for a scientist to measure great white sharks.

The businesses get qualified, inexpensive labor ($10.20 an hour) and help develop essential skills for potential future employees. The kids get valuable experience they can leverage into a job and a paycheck that doesn’t come from a fast-food restaurant.

“It’s really amazing to have an opportunity to apply what we’ve learned in the classroom in real life,” Gillett said. “There are so many tools and so much space for us to work with. I feel very prepared to enter the water engineering program at (Colorado State University) next year.”

In the aeronautics lab, complete with a 250-foot runway, students receive flight training and have been hired to fly drones over wildfires, shoot commercials, and even design and build drones.

Michelle Tran, also a senior, used the Innovation Center’s Tech Lab to become Apple’s youngest certified Mac technician at 14 years old. Though she hopes to pivot career paths and become a pre-med and business major in college, the experiences at the Innovation Center helped her gain the confidence she needed to pursue her dreams.

“Graduating with a double-sided resume is really great,” she said. “While my (grade-point average) and extracurricular activities will last a few years, these certifications will last me a lifetime.”

While many of the students at the Innovation Center, such as Gillett and Tran, will attend college, part of the goal of allowing students to achieve professional certifications means they don’t necessarily have to follow the traditional educational route and can get high- paying jobs right out of high school.

Though the Innovation Center has operated since it received a $16.6 million federal Race to the Top grant eight years ago, thanks to a community bond approved by voters in 2016, it was able to move from a 6,000-square-foot space that served 10 schools in the district, to the new 50,000-square-foot facility that serves all 33,000 students in the district.

“We landed in mecca,” Patricia Quinones, the assistant superintendent of innovation, said half-jokingly. “The space is really important because who knows what we’ll be working on tomorrow.”

John Spina: 303-473-1389, jspina@times-call.com or twitter.com/jsspina24

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