(Photo: Flagstaff Academy).


How a scientific/tech curriculum empowers kids in all subjects

An elementary and middle school education that prioritizes science and technology offers much more than a solid understanding of photosynthesis, fluency with computer programming or the spark that launches a future astronaut into space. A science-celebrating curriculum sets all students up for success in high school and beyond by teaching the transferable skills of asking thoughtful questions, thinking critically and problem-solving creatively.

Katie Gustafson, executive principal at Flagstaff Academy in Longmont, refers to herself as a “lead learner” and models for students “how to learn by inquiry,” she said. At the St. Vrain Valley charter school specializing in science and technology, Gustafson and the Flagstaff teachers weave the scientific method into each course. A former middle school teacher and middle school principal at Flagstaff, Gustafson recalled, “Even in the social studies classroom, students are taught to use the scientific process to observe the world around us. We make identifications, create a hypothesis and test. This teaches students how to understand and process the world around them and to be well-rounded, successful, productive citizens of our community and world.”

At Flagstaff, the skill of asking questions is developed by wondering. Preschoolers are encouraged to explore through play, and Kindergarteners observe the stages of plant growth from the moment they plunge a handful of corn seeds into the dirt to the day they harvest to the popcorn party at the end of the school year. Elementary students rotate through the school’s indoor laboratories and outdoor natural classroom, complete with a geodesic dome greenhouse featuring an aquaponic system. Middle schoolers tend to fish and pollinator-friendly plants. Classes frequently spill outside to study birds or classify insects. Field trips to nearby parks, zoos and nature spaces are the norm.

“We offer more than 30 different electives each year, with the science and technology ‘essentials’ as our bread and butter, because we love and are passionate about these things,” Gustafson said. To foster hands-on inquiry, Flagstaff students study flight by navigating drones through school hallways, and in food science, always a hit with middle schoolers, students evaluate why specific ingredients produce different chemical reactions.

All of this is to usher students from inquiry to critical thinking and creative problem-solving. According to the National Science Teaching Association, an education based on the scientific method – or on asking questions, hypothesizing, experimenting, analyzing results and reaching a conclusion – is proven to cultivate problem-solving skills in students from a young age. Moreover, when developed in a safe environment, students who learn to ask questions and think critically are more likely to feel comfortable “not knowing and taking risks,” Gustafson said. She added, “We have to take risks as scientists and as engineers and have to be ok with being wrong sometimes.”

A technology-driven curriculum likewise sets students up for success. “Seventeen-plus years ago, our founding families (of Flagstaff) didn’t know what was coming in terms of technology – smartphones, social media, careers, but they knew how to prepare students for the future. We too are in an interesting place where we don’t know what careers or jobs will be available or obsolete, so we focus on helping our students to be investigators, not just digesters of knowledge.”

Gustafson noted that even if a student isn’t particularly interested in science or technology, an education steeped in how to think carefully and methodically will help students reach their goals. “It’s not only because of our science and technology focus, but it is true that our students are trained to meet the challenges of the future, whether that’s college or helping them figure out they love to take things apart and want to look into vocational school.”

Finally, as a public charter school, Flagstaff emphasizes that a science and technology-focused education can benefit anyone. “At home, parents can ask questions, like ‘Why are some of the leaves yellow but most are still green on the tree outside by the window? It starts with everyone getting this awesome experience of learning to inquire about the world around you and grow.”

By Sarah Huber, Raised in the Rockies