STEMapalooza 2009

By light rail, by limo, by bus and by car—Coloradoans of all ages came to enjoy STEMapalooza, presented by University of Colorado Denver on Oct. 16 and 17. Celebrating STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and partnerships, the event was an ideal venue for educators and businesses to network and share the latest information about the sciences. For students, their parents and teachers, it provided opportunities to dive into hands-on, “minds-on” activities such as fast-track racing, robotics, gaming, film production, staging and rocketry.

Launched in 2008, the event was again held at the Colorado Convention Center. In day one alone, more than 7,000 people attended, a number exceeding the total tally of days one and two combined for last year.

Sharon Unkart, managing director of CASMIC (The Center for Applied Science and Mathematics for Innovations and Competitiveness), CU Denver, and manager of STEMapalooza couldn’t have been more pleased with the outcome. “University of Colorado Denver’s STEMapalooza provides an incredible opportunity for engagement between the community and the university for an exchange of educational ideas and networking. Given the increased interest in just a year, I see participation rapidly growing on both the attendee and exhibitor levels.”

Exhibitors came from both the CU Denver downtown and Anschutz Medical Campus, as well as from organizations such as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver Zoo, and the Denver Children’s Museum. The event included sponsors such as Wavelinks arts group and contributing sponsors/exhibitors such as Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance.

Gary Barbosa, Director of Human Resources, Lockheed Martin explained why his company energetically supports STEM outreach and research, and why he returned to STEMapalooza this year. “There are many Colorado companies and organizations that are involved in STEM initiatives, but there is a need to ‘connect the dots’ of these multiple activities. Especially during the current economy, it is vital to consolidate efforts, align our priorities, and to be able to deliver more for less.”

Friday’s luncheon drew audiences to hear keynote speakers Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien and Col. Fred Gregory, retired former NASA astronaut, with an introduction given by CU Denver Chancellor M. Roy Wilson.

Wilson stressed that community focus around STEM initiatives is critical. “Too many of our best and brightest students don’t receive adequate preparation in the important areas of mathematics and science. They are left out of the possibility of working in a variety of fields ranging from medicine to engineering. CU Denver is proud to host and support University of Colorado Denver’s STEMapalooza.”

In her keynote speech, Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien said that statistics show that 40 percent of today’s jobs require a reasonable understanding of technology, and the number will increase to 90 percent within 10 years. New approaches to STEM education can help to keep American students competitive within the ever-changing global marketplace.

Col. Fred Gregory captured the audience’s imagination as he described his journey from the classroom into outer space. Citing his father and mother, a schoolteacher, as his first mentors, Gregory talked about the value of learning math and science. He graduated from the United States Air Force Academy where he studied military engineering, was a combat rescue pilot in Vietnam, received a master’s degree in information systems from George Washington University, and was selected as an astronaut for NASA. Gregory made history during his flights on three shuttle missions, and with the launch of STS-51B/Spacelab-3 in 1985, became the first African-American to pilot a spacecraft. He said that it is imperative that Colorado be the keystone, the center of STEM education and progress. “STEM is the core, the strength of the U.S., no doubt about it.”

Following the luncheon, Friday’s panel discussion sessions centered around Race to the Top, guided by mediator Janet Lopez, Director of P-20 for CU Denver. The Race to the Top Fund provides competitive grants to encourage and reward states that are creating conditions for education innovation and reform, and implementing plans in education reform areas as described in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

Saturday’s activities included Arts and Math workshops in which professional artists and educators explored concepts at the juncture point of sciences/math and the arts.

And both days held plenty of excitement for students—from learning about how to test your DNA to seeing a live caiman (a member of the crocodilian family) to getting a 3-d view of the globe to engineering your own robot.

Vanessa Aponte, a graduate of the CU system who was at the event for the first time, attributed her early interest in science to a favorite high school teacher. Well representing the next generation of space leadership. Aponte is senior systems engineer for the System Design Integration Team, Orion CEV, Lockheed Martin, and is in the NASA astronaut assessment program. Aponte happily reported, “Now I’m able to work on the Orion spacecraft, which represents the next generation space capsule.”

Last year, Mike Kelly, a Mapleton 11th and 12th grade math teacher, took 30-40 Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts middle and high school students to the inaugural STEMapalooza. This act changed Mike’s and thus his students’ world. Mike made a connection that landed him a 3-year, 8-week NREL internship through the Department of Energy’s ACTS (Academies Creating Teacher Scientists) program. The internship focuses on how NREL works, tours of relevant companies/businesses, work as a researcher and writing an education module which he can then bring back to use in his teaching. Mike is now teaching an elective renewable energy class at Mapleton in addition to math as a result of his experience.

While at NREL, Mike has met industry professionals like the creator of the first solar panel that went into space. From his experience, he now brings real life science into the classroom and teaches hands-on learning. Mapleton is home to an underserved student population. These students have a new appreciation of science and math—they are being exposed to it and realize the possibility of a science or math career.

This year, Mike and his colleagues brought six bus loads of Mapleton students to STEMapalooza on Saturday, with the buses provided by Lockheed Martin. “The connections made at STEMapalooza and the grant money resulting from the connections made is invaluable, especially for a school like ours,” said Kelly.

Athena Lakobong, a junior at Mapleton and one of Mike’s current math students, plans on being a doctor, even after viewing a birthing mannequin provided by the Center for Advancing Professional Excellence (CAPE) on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Lakobong. Mike’s students said STEMapalooza is definitely a worthwhile experience because they learn new things like how the ecosystem needs prairie dogs and they see new things like the birthing mannequin and learn by doing fun activities.

“I think this event is fantastic,” said Kelly. “It keeps or gets kids interested in science and technology which may lead them to a STEM career. For other students, it’s just a time to “hang out” with an adult who cares about them. If we are lucky, maybe both things can happen!”

Along with STEMapalooza and Race to the Top, CU Denver is taking a leadership role in a broad range of STEM initiatives through research and collaborations that bring together industries, educational institutions and organizations. The university is a partner in the Colorado STEM Network, the statewide coalition of businesses, government, education and community groups that was launched by Gov. Bill Ritter in June 2009.

“If I were a third grader today wondering ‘what do I want to do when I grow up’…think of the possibilities!” concluded Col. Gregory at the end of his speech. “Especially in the realm of space travel; I could imagine developing a completely new kind of propulsion for rockets—one that we already have but never considered as applied to space travel. Or engineering new designs to build way-stations. I personally want to wake up in the first Hyatt that’s built on Mars, open the curtains, and look out at our beautiful planet Earth… I know there are third graders somewhere in this country who are working on it right now!”

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