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Sparking Those 'Aha' Moments

In St. Vrain, students make connections between what they are learning in class and the career opportunities that exist.
Frederick High School senior, Tanya Alvarado, holds up a virtual reality headset used in the Anatomical Case Studies course.


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We all grow up to be something – and someone. What gets us there are the people and experiences that raise us. With 32,000+ students moving through the St. Vrain Valley Schools system each year, there are countless variables that determine who will graduate to become a community leader, a health services worker, a technology engineer, or another choice among the endless career options. The key to sparking students’ ‘aha’ moments is ensuring all have access to a variety of extraordinary opportunities along their journey in St. Vrain.


At Frederick High School, the Biomedical Science Academy offers a new virtual reality partnership program with Colorado State University (CSU) that has students wearing VR goggles to learn and study anatomy, working with CSU undergraduate students, and exploring real imaging of the human body to diagnose the medical issues they are seeing.

“The VR experience was the first time in a long time that I had a deep-seated spark and childlike excitement for something that was new. The medium was so correct for what we were learning about – it was easy to get engrossed in the subject,” shares Levi Friss, a senior at Frederick High who wants to pursue a career in veterinary medicine with a focus on wildlife.

The Anatomical Case Studies Virtual Reality course has students review four case studies throughout the term and comb through them meticulously by retaining information they learned in previous classes, such as Anatomy and Medical Terminology. “It is amazing to watch the wheels turn,” shares Mark Allen, Biomedical Science Coordinator. “The cases progress in difficulty throughout the term and the students grow in their ability to diagnose and present on the various medical issues.”

Breaking down the differences between the cranial nerve and spinal nerve and how that impacts the body is one small piece to piquing students’ interest. The more they learn, the more clarity they gain with what they might like to pursue after high school.

For fellow senior, Tanya Alvarado, her favorite aspect of the program was working with the CSU mentors. Ahead of the first class, Tanya felt nervous that the undergraduate students were a few years older and would have more experience. But, she quickly felt at ease working with her mentors and realized that this is a path she can, and will pursue. “I always thought I wanted to pursue a career in medicine and this experience really solidified that for me. The partnership gave me a sense of what future college classes would look like – especially because this is a college class,” shares Tanya.


In St. Vrain, students make connections between what they are learning in class and the career opportunities that exist. Over the course of two years, students at Lyons Middle Senior High and the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools have engaged in a nationally recognized conservation partnership project to raise and release the Colorado native, endangered northern redbelly dace minnow into the local ecosystem. Through the experience, students work directly with local leaders in conservation efforts including the Ocean First Institute, Boulder County Parks and Open Space, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the Denver Zoo.

Niwot sophomore, Taryn McDermid, joined the project because it combined her passions for the environment and robotics. “This project really matters to me because of how important these fish are to our community and to ensuring a healthy environment.” Taryn and her peers are raising fish with the ultimate goal to reintroduce them into the St. Vrain River.
Post-reintroduction, students will continue to study the success of the project by monitoring the fish with underwater robotics and conducting tests on water quality through various means, such as eDNA testing.

The project brought with it many challenges, which has fostered resiliency and adaptability in the students. The team had to work around COVID-19 related restrictions and delays. The first batch of fish raised was intended to be released at Webster Pond in unincorporated Boulder County, but post- flood restoration work to the pond was delayed and the group found a different location in Lyons for the first release in September 2020.

On a sunny day in August 2021, community members were finally able to celebrate the release of the dace into Webster Pond. “After beginning this project at the start of the pandemic, we have worked tirelessly to create an environment for these fish to not only survive, but thrive at our school,” reflects Lyons senior Cassidy Batts. “The fish lost their environment just like we did in the 2013 flood. We faced COVID obstacles while raising them, but persevered because the conservation of this native species matters.”


Planning for future success requires starting during the early years and building on students’ unique abilities. At Timberline PK-8, school leadership recently developed a pathway for students to successfully enroll in the Seal of Biliteracy program once they enter high school. The Seal of Biliteracy recognizes students who have studied and attained proficiency or higher in English and at least one other language, providing students with a competitive advantage in the employment market as well as increased opportunities for higher education.

Timberline PK-8 has always offered a biliteracy program for students in kindergarten through third grade, and Spanish as an elective for students in sixth through eighth grade. Realizing there was a break in their Spanish offerings when there was a high interest in continuing the coursework, the team developed the Pathway to the Seal of Biliteracy program, where Timberline now offers Spanish as an additional specials class, like music or gym, for students in fourth and fifth grade.

“We look at the advantages that Timberline already has here. We are lucky that we have a lot of bilingual students that can be a part of supporting a pathways program,” shares Literacy Teacher Dianne Portilla. “Being bilingual is an asset. Now we can extend the opportunity to families who do not have two languages at home.”

For students with a strong foundation in Spanish, the Pathway to the Seal of Biliteracy focuses on connecting language, vocabulary, and grammar across learning environments to develop stronger academic language. For students in the developing and advanced stages of learning Spanish, the program focuses on connecting learning environments and language learning with authentic texts, vocabulary development, and writing.

Fourth Grade Teacher Ruth Hanna explains that the students who take language classes in elementary and middle school have their interests piqued to either continue to study that same language in high school, or choose to pursue a new language. “They are ready for the very rigorous Seal of Biliteracy program when they enter high school.”

One of the many ways Hanna and Portilla build a bridge between English and Spanish is through their focus on the use of cognates, or words with similar sounds and meanings, to encourage students to master academic vocabulary, which leads to true biliteracy and opens new doors for students in career options and community building.

The students also see their growing translanguaging abilities as an asset. “Being able to speak two languages helps me understand people and think in different ways,” shared fourth grader, Juno Flores. “It helps me have a better mindset.”