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Engineering Healthier Communities

St. Vrain students use their passions for STEM to serve and make advancements in the health and sciences fields – now and for the future
6. Engineering Healthier Communities – Photo
Mia Novick and Bailey Klusack visit UCHealth to design the hospital room of the future.

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It’s a dark, rainy autumn night as 15 Longmont High School students meet for their weekly SMART (Students Modeling a Research Topic ) Team meeting. The after-school program creates a space where students can socialize with peers who have similar interests, and engage in rigorous medical studies and research. Through SMART Teams, students study different proteins over the course of the school year. They conduct advanced work including creating 3D models, writing scientific abstracts, and presenting summaries of their research. This evening, the students are learning to write a scientific abstract about myoglobin and its function in the human body.

When asked why they return to school during their sparse free time, the students’ first responses include the standard high schooler jokes about how great participation looks on college applications, but as they continue chatting about their interests, their passion for science is clear. “Learning about proteins is interesting. We never go this deep into research during our science classes. It’s a lot different than anything we’ve done before,” shares senior Charlie Bastunskiy.

“There is a social aspect to SMART Teams. You are around others who are equally as interested in the topics and it’s very motivating to be around other people and go deeper into the content,” explains fellow senior, Annette Perez Ayala.

There is a lot of crossover between students who participate in the school’s Medical and BioScience Academy and SMART Teams, but it’s open for any student who wants to explore science more. The program also includes mentorship visits from professors, research scientists, and PhD graduate students from the University of Colorado Boulder to deepen students’ connections between their current research and their potential next steps at the collegiate level and beyond.

Many of the students pursue research opportunities as undergraduates, and go on to study biomolecular chemistry or pre-med related undergraduate studies. Participation in SMART Teams opens up new career interests for them. “They are understanding high-level scientific concepts. The projects they create are similar to the work of graduate students,” says advisor Kelly Lubkeman.

SMART Team students have conducted research on topics such as: ras proteins, regulators of cell growth; opioid receptors, receptors in the nervous system; and histidine kinase CheA, chemical detectors that trigger bacterial movement. Past participants have gone on to present their professional posters at the Experimental Biology Annual Conference.

“The students that we get are the ones who are curious. They enjoy the process of learning. For me as an advisor, it’s fulfilling because participating in SMART Teams is not about extrinsic factors – there is no competition or award. They are motivated intrinsically because they love to learn and we as educators are excited to foster that desire to learn,” shares advisor Chris Chou.


“My students go out and serve the community,” shares Karen Carr, who has been a paramedic for 24 years and now finds herself assigned to work alongside former St. Vrain students during her weekly ambulance shift. “It’s such a great feeling.” This is her fourth year teaching at the Career Elevation and Technology Center (CETC) where she leads the Emergency Medical System and Health Sciences pathway courses and regularly witnesses current students and graduates working in the health community and impacting lives.

Through the Health Sciences program, students across St. Vrain can explore certification pathways in the following health careers: Emergency Medical Technician, Nursing Assistant, Dental Assistant, Medical Assistant, and Sports Medicine. “I love the energy we get from students trying something that they didn’t think was possible,” continues Carr. She structures her classes to be as hands-on and experiential as possible for her students. Throughout her classroom are mannequins, cots, oxygen tanks, first aid kits, and CPR equipment. Outside her classroom is an ambulance that she worked to acquire as a donation for students to understand how to work with patients in tight-knit quarters.

Carr’s goal is for her students to be prepared to master their certification test, whichever pathway it may be, and be successful in their desired field. “When students leave my class, they are ready to take their national certification and go to work. There is nothing they are going to encounter on the job that they have not seen in class,” declares Carr. Many of her students within the EMT Program are college bound and interested in pre-med. After they complete their classroom training and take the national exam, they can work as EMTs, which gives them real experience working with patients, and positively impacts their community.

“It’s really about preparing you for the future,” shares Frederick senior, Morgan Boisen. It’s great to learn new things about a topic I am passionate about and that is applicable in real life. Now in an emergency, I know how to step in and help.”

While the students are enrolled in CETC coursework, they volunteer at local health fairs and community events, and they receive clinical training at emergency rooms, assisted living homes, and special events as medical standby staff. Students come back from clinicals with real-world experiences such as performing CPR and providing care to patients with significant needs. These experiences are what guide students to knowing if they are on their right

career path or whether they want to explore a different field within medicine.


St. Vrain Valley Schools’ students are engaging with health industry professionals now to serve as thought partners to improve systems. Through a partnership program with UCHealth, high school students at the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools were tasked with improving the overall hospital room experience by competing in a design challenge referred to as the Hospital Room of the Future.

Working in teams, students representing different high schools across the district worked with UCHealth to empathize with patients and medical staff, and ideate solutions for improvement within the hospital environment.

Recent Niwot High School graduate, Jocelyn Gunn, has always been passionate about science and medicine and wanted to combine her interests with the more technical aspects of healthcare. She chose to collaborate with peers interested in robotics to develop a greater understanding of how various industries come together.

“This experience opened my eyes to how things function in a practical, real- world situation. We can learn about engineering and biology in the classroom, but it is totally different to see how concepts function in a real-world situation,” explains Jocelyn.

Her team won the challenge with their proposed design for a food delivery robot. The use of the robot alleviates the workload of nurses while improving the food delivery experience for patients in terms of speed and temperature of the food.

“It’s really important for students to see their learning goes beyond the classroom and for them to make connections between what they’re learning in their biology classes or math classes and see how that can lead to an actual impact,” shares educator Michelle Kennedy, who coordinated the project with UCHealth.

Kennedy’s hope for her students is to understand the complexities of healthcare, think about things from different perspectives, and develop empathy for patients, family members, hospital staff, nurses, and doctors. “The project connects students with the resources available to them within their community and has them thinking critically about how they can improve these things in the future and make them better for everyone involved.”