How will you make the world better?
This question challenges every member of the Preston
Middle School community and serves as the foundation
for everything we do.
Preston Middle School is a school of science, technology,
engineering, and math (STEM) located in Fort Collins,
Colorado. It was named an Intel School of Distinction in
Science for 2011 and received the designation of SMART
Showcase Elite School for 2012. Preston increased the
number of gifted and talented students by 75%, performs
in the top 7% in the nation in math, and sent three
Science Olympiad teams and two robotics teams to
But it wasn’t always that way. These outcomes grew
from a crisis.
Making a Link
In 2006, Preston Middle School faced many challenges.
The transition from a traditional junior high school
to a middle school caused community concern and
apprehension about academic rigor. State accountability
allowed horizontal comparison, and Preston scores were
not at the top. A new school—always a magnet for mobile
families—opened a mile away. And, the Poudre School
District offered high-performing charter schools with
Beyond these challenges particular to the community
of Fort Collins, municipalities in the east were using
technical education to train their students to move
into newly created high-tech jobs in an effort to renew
struggling urban centers.
Policymakers and the media continued to point to the
country’s low rank in international testing such as Program
for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends
in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS),
which led Congress to examine the number and types of
degrees earned in the world’s growing economies.
The 2008 CRS report to Congress, Science, Technology,
Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education: Background,
Federal Policy, and Legislative Action, found that 17% of
first college degrees in the United States are STEM degrees,
compared to 52% in China and 58% in Japan.
The realization that there is a critical link between
economics and STEM education led President Obama to
say in his January 2011 State of the Union address: “This
is our generation’s Sputnik moment!”
Taking advantage of these crises and opportunities,
Preston Middle School began working to become a credible
neighborhood STEM school.
Becoming a STEM School
Research is an important component of Preston’s STEM focus.
Magnet schools, schools-within-a-school, and charter
schools are all models our education system uses to
deliver STEM education. Preston chose a fourth model: a
neighborhood STEM school open to all students.
The school’s primary goal is to create capable and
confident students who can compete in and complete
STEM degrees using rigorous academics, research and
service, professional networking, challenging extracurricular
activities, and discovery and exploration with technology
Students are more motivated when they make connections to the real world.
The development of mandatory
state performance and academic growth testing has
provided schools with valuable data to track students’
performance and target interventions around their specific
needs. The most potent change at Preston, however, was
attitudinal: from a belief that some students can achieve
and other students can’t achieve, to a belief that all
students can achieve at high levels. Learning, not time,
became the constant.
The development of professional learning communities
led to a more rigorous curriculum and higher student
performance with and respectable growth in all areas and
the greatest growth coming in math. Competency, not
grades, is a strong motivator. Standards-based learning
with common assessments give teams the tools to adjust
instruction for results.
Research and Service. Research and service were added
as components of Preston’s STEM school because solving
real-world problems motivates students and connects
learning to the real world. Student engagement skyrockets
when learning is authentic and self-directed.
Beginning with the scientific method, students learn how
to identify problems using data they have gathered, look
for solutions that have already been tried, and design new
and unique solutions. For example, in 2010, Preston joined
with Lincoln Middle School to study Poudre water quality
in preparation for a formal report regarding the potential
environmental impact of a proposed uranium mining
operation in northern Larimer County.
Professional Networking. Preston began working with
the International Telementor Program (www.telementor.
org) in 2010. Students choose a passion project and are
matched with an expert who commits to working through
the projects with the students (electronically).
For example, Preston students teamed with students
in the Philippines on a reforestation project to mitigate
flooding through the center of Dumaguete, Philippines, an
area devastated by Typhoon Sendong.
A sixth grade science class wanted to expand the
availability of water for wildlife in Selzer Gulch, Larimer
County. On a Saturday morning, students, parents, and a
teacher installed a guzzler (small water tank) that in the first
week was visited by three black bears, a mountain lion, and a variety of bird species. And, Preston students documented
a river otter, which is rare on the front range of Colorado.
Students also pursue individual passion projects. Palmer,
working with a civil engineering professional, developed a
flood mitigation plan for the Sevier River and presented his
solution to North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple and the
Army Corps of Engineers in December 2011.
Tyler proposed and directed efforts to obtain an
Automated External Defibrillator(AED) for the school.
And Cohan was inspired to create opportunities for
students with disabilities to participate in summer sports
camps in his neighborhood. His camp filled immediately.
Modeling for their students, Preston staff members have
conducted gratis robotics workshops in underserved areas
in Texas and South Dakota. They have hosted or presented
to several schools looking into STEM practices and have
also presented at national conferences. Preston also hosted
a STEM Educator Symposium to bring STEM educators
together to learn how to build credible STEM programs.
Challenging Extracurricular Activities. Why include
challenging extracurricular activities? Athletics have held
center stage for years. Dean Kamen, founder of the First
Lego League and inventor of the Segway scooter, said in
a 1993 New York Times article, “We need to make the right
heroes and role models….We need to show kids that the
200 best inventors in the world make enough money to
own their own NFL team, that no one will ever make as
much money with their muscles as with their mind.”
Preston has a participation rate of more than 50% factor
(includes repeats) in athletics, but it also has a participation
rate of 38% factor in STEM extracurricular activities, such as
FIRST Robotics, MathCounts, and Science Olympiad.
Discovery and Exploration.
Hands-on activities encourage students to explore and discover.
Colorado State University’s
Bob Richburg, in his book Igniting Student Potential
“The seven words ‘See if you can figure this out’ are,
metaphorically, the mating call of the brain. They are the
brain’s ‘mating call’ because whenever a brain hears those
words, either explicitly or implicitly, it enthusiastically
responds, ‘Yes, I will try to figure it out!’”
Children are born to discover and explore. Courses and
activities that allow them to try something new give them
data they will use to make career decisions. Classes like
Hybrid Powered Vehicles, Oceanography, Introduction to
Engineering, 3D Design, and Space Mission are engaging
and draw students out to participate.
Preston offers these classes in a variety of formats: as
quarter classes, semester classes, and during the STEM
Institute in the summer. Extended, in-depth field trips also
are laboratories for exploration.
Technology Integration. Preston Middle School thrives
on learning and implementing technology. Gone are the
days when technology was thought of as an add-on—
something that had to be taught somewhere during the
lesson, usually at the end. Preston believes technology
gives every student a voice, increases student engagement,
develops higher-order thinking skills, and drives curriculum.
In 2007, Preston had three roaming interactive SMART
Boards®. The Preston community embraced this technology
because it allowed movement, engagement, collaboration,
and creativity. Students and staff became dependent on
SMART Boards and soon there was one in every classroom.
This excitement inspired Preston Middle School to
implement the latest technology whenever possible.
The purchase of iPads has given all students access to
popular technology for a variety of purposes, including
developing helpful apps. Students access technologies
beyond the school day, which helps close the digital divide.
Research shows that students learn complex concepts
easier and retain those concepts longer when learning
occurs in a 3D format. A team of Preston staff members built
a 3D video lab, so now students are able to learn curriculum
in 3D. They are creating 3D content as well. The purchase of
a 3D printer allows students to prototype their 3D work.
Preston students are learning the technological skills of
the future today!
The Mayan calendar crisis aside, the Arlington Institute
(www.arlingtoninstitute.org) identifies the following as
“The World’s Biggest Problems”:
- Economic collapse
- Peak oil
- Global water crisis
- Species extinction
- Rapid climate change
The solutions to these and future problems will come
from individuals with the heart and mind to make their
world better. Many of these individuals are in our schools
today and need to be given the opportunity to become
engaged in these issues through STEM. We are excited
to learn how the world will become better through
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, August 2012