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Column: Digital Renaissance

St. Vrain is home to the next generation of innovators who will lead our AI-powered future.

You: What would the experience have felt like to be standing in Michelangelo’s studio as he was preparing to sculpt David or create any of his defining artwork of the early 16th Century?

ChatGPT: Standing in Michelangelo's studio in the early 16th Century, one would have been enveloped in an atmosphere thick with the scent of marble dust and the earthy aroma of clay, the air alive with the palpable buzz of creative genius at work. Amidst the clutter of chisels, sketches, and half-formed ideas, the sense of witnessing the birth of something transcendent was overwhelming, as if each strike of the master's hammer against chisel was not just shaping stone, but the very course of art history. In this sacred space, where raw materials were transformed into timeless masterpieces, every shadow and shaft of light seemed to whisper of limitless possibilities and the profound power of human creativity.

‘A whisper of limitless possibilities and the profound power of human creativity’ –  this phrase captures the essence of several significant periods in human history. Each era, marked by its own creative and intellectual giants, has pushed humanity forward. During the Renaissance, figures like Nicolaus Copernicus and Michelangelo spurred a cultural and artistic awakening. Centuries later, the likes of Vincent van Gogh and Ada Lovelace emerged during the intersection of the Industrial Revolution and the Post-Impressionist movement, fundamentally altering our perception and experience of the world. More recently, visionaries like Steve Jobs and Toni Morrison have inspired hearts and minds. Today, we see a new wave of innovators like Sierra Ryan and other students and teachers across St. Vrain Valley Schools, poised to spearhead a new digital Renaissance – the next generation of creators, artists, thinkers, and innovators who will lead our AI-powered future.

Renaissance Person: /ˈrenəˌsäns ˈpərs(ə)n/


a cultured person of the Renaissance who was knowledgeable, educated, or proficient in a wide range of fields. (sometimes lowercase) a present-day person who has acquired profound knowledge or proficiency in more than one field.

The dictionary definition of a renaissance person might as well have Sierra Ryan’s photo next to it. The Erie High senior, who has been signed to Arizona State’s Lacrosse program next year, spends her days balancing AP Computer Science and Cloud Computing classes, with running her own AI automation start-up company, and her work on the Innovation Center’s Artificial Intelligence team. Sierra – like so many students across St. Vrain – has a vision for her future that is rooted in the hopeful optimism and empowerment that has driven transformative change throughout our history.

“With every advancement that we’ve had in society – such as the internet or even the discovery that the Earth revolves around the Sun, not that the Sun revolves around the Earth – there’s always naysayers who think it’s going to be the end of the world or the end of human intelligence, and I greatly disagree with that,” shared Sierra. “Technology makes us better at being creative and coming up with new ideas, and I think the key right now is for people to flip the script and change their thinking.”

St. Vrain Valley Schools has become a leader for its technological preparation and readiness to embrace Artificial Intelligence and other rapidly emerging technologies, through the district’s emphasis on strategic adoption, student safety, cybersecurity, and successful implementation.

Teachers like Mai Vu, AI Program Manager at the Innovation Center, also recognize the possibilities. “Teaching AI is the ability to touch the future,” she said. Vu doesn’t view AI as a threat to replace teachers or stifle creativity, but as a liberating force. “We cannot put AI back in the bottle. We would do a disservice to our students if we don’t change how we assess learning to push critical thinking skills.”

One of the greatest opportunities in artificial intelligence technologies is to leverage the infinite potential of these systems to increase one of our most finite and precious resources: time. 

“I’m most optimistic about the potential of AI reducing the amount of time that people have to spend doing mundane or repetitive tasks that really don’t require a lot of unique human intelligence to be creative and to be social,” added Sierra. “I’m excited for five years down the road, when AI has freed up the time for the human brain to focus on bigger ideas and bigger things, and to see the ideas and innovations that develop when people have more freedom to experiment with new ways of thinking instead of rote memorization.” 

This benefit is something that is already having an impact on classrooms and teachers across St. Vrain. In Carol Woods’s preschool classroom at Red Hawk Elementary School, ChatGPT, Canva, and other AI technologies are working behind the scenes – as a thought partner, assistant, and organizer – to increase Carol’s capacity to focus on what teachers do best – build relationships and authentic connections with students to advance their learning. One way that she has used ChatGPT as a thought partner is to create activities to engage students using resources already in the classroom, such as 10 different ways to use hula hoops for structured movement after recess. 

“Using AI as my ‘planning partner’ has saved me so much time and given me great new ideas to implement in the classroom,” shared Woods. “I don’t want to always use the same activities I’ve done in the past, and AI has sparked new ways of thinking, completed a lot of the repetitive aspects of lesson planning, and allowed me to engage more deeply into the science of learning – all to become a better teacher.” 

Carol, alongside hundreds of St. Vrain teachers, has been gaining skills and experience with AI at one of the district’s many AI pop-ups and professional development events, often led by students, including Sierra and other members of the Innovation Center’s AI team. Idaly Gomez-Pena, a senior at Skyline High School, has been a part of the AI team for three years, and has seen firsthand the impact that these learning experiences have had within the St. Vrain community. 

“Before I started learning to use AI tools, if I needed help with an essay, sometimes it could be difficult to find the right time or place to ask questions, but with AI, I have that support available in my pocket, all the time,” added Idaly. “I’ve also seen AI really benefit teachers who come to our events to learn, as well as senior citizens in the community that we have been working with to teach them AI and cybersecurity skills.”

In addition to advancing the AI journey of others in the community, the Artificial Intelligence team is also focused on advanced applications of AI to address some of our world’s most pressing challenges. Last year, students partnered with Boulder County Parks and Open Space to build a system that is powered by AI to conduct research that benefits the St. Vrain watershed. 

“We have been working on a computer vision artificial intelligence model that was designed to track fish species in the local St. Vrain River. The system records data on the fish that pass by an underwater camera and sends it back to scientists that are monitoring the health of our rivers,” shared Sierra. “I think this has been one of the most interesting aspects of the AI project team, learning to overcome any bumps in the road and work with a client to create something from beginning to end that is having a real-world impact.”

Projects like this represent the future of education and student learning by accelerating the boundaries of creative thought and community impact.

 “If we want to push students to have these critical thinking skills, we’ve got to give them a chance to do that. There are so many challenges in the world that need solving, and if we don’t provide opportunities, they won’t get solved,” shared Vu. “But I do know this, I do know that I am very optimistic that cancer will be solved in my lifetime, with these students, and with the use of AI.” 

Over 500 years ago, Michelangelo believed that hidden inside every block of stone was a statue waiting to be freed. Today, students in St. Vrain view their laptop screens, keyboards, and phones in much the same way. With generative artificial intelligence as their hammer and chisel, they are chipping away digital marble to unleash creative masterpieces and new ideas that will define our collective future.

“AI on its own, will never be as effective as AI and a human together, and the same can be said that a human on its own, will never be as effective as a human and AI together,” said Sierra.