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After four years in high school graduates come away with new skills, horizons to chase, and accomplishments to celebrate. Looking back at the end of Wheat Ridge High School’s STEM program fourth year, instructor Chuck Sprague feels the same way.
“It’s kind of like graduation for us in a way,” Sprague said. “It’s a testament to our instructors, professional engineers and administration for allowing this program to grow. We’re already making exciting plans for the coming years.”
The school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program started in 2014 under the guidance of Sprague and University of Colorado Denver instructor Doug Gallagher, with a focus of building a successful prototype hydrogen fuel cell car in the annual Shell Eco-Marathon.
In that first year, the 16-person team took first place in the competition. In the ensuing years, the team has grown to nearly 80 members and has taken another first place, one second place, and remained on the podium with a third-place finish in this year’s competition at the Sonoma Raceway in California.
“We may not have placed as high this year, but we learned a lot about the racing community and the importance of thinking on the spot,” said Ali Helton, a sophomore who went to the competition for the first time and is in her second year in the STEM program. “We learned about adaptability in the moment and dealing with situations as they arise.”
In addition to the growth of students interested in participating, the programs has also grown to include new projects. Not only do students still design prototype hydrogen fuel cell cars from scratch every year, but also a car for the urban concept category, which means it needs to be street ready, with everything from doors to windshield wipers.
Some students are also working on NASA’s Human Exploration Rover Challenge, which invites both high school and college teams to design, build and test human-powered roving vehicles inspired by the Apollo lunar missions and future exploration.
And other students have joined the school’s STEAM (the “A” is for art) class, which blends the technical side of STEM learning with the creativity of the art world project. After successfully building a sculpture in honor of well-known football player and alumni Freddie Steinmark and installing it at Lutheran Medical Center, the STEAM class is designing its next piece.
On top off all this, the program turned an empty classroom at the school into a makeshift meeting center, where potential sponsors, future students and other professionals can meet for presentations from students and learn about the program.
“This program has definitely gotten more students interested in STEM, and now we’re looking at ways to bring this program into other schools around the area,” Gallagher said. “It has also pushed colleges like mine to find new ways to integrate STEM programs into students’ lives.”
Students are already hard at work on the design for next year’s cars to get a jump on the competition and are looking at other projects to tackle during the next school year.
“I had the chance to see some other designs in Sonoma this year, so that has helped give me some ideas,” said Isaac Fernald, a junior who has been in the program for his entire time at Wheat Ridge. We want to have it all designed as soon as possible and now have more experience to use when it comes to that process.”
Students like sophomore Connor Denny, who is wrapping up his first year in the program, are eager to take their experiences and apply them to whatever directions the program goes in 2018 and 2019.
But graduating senior Casey Kramer who, along with Ian Clark and Kevin McCoy, has been in the program since it was first created in 2014, will take his time in program to college and beyond.
“Every year the program changed a bit, and it’s been fun to go from working so hard with just 12 of us to having more hands to spare as more people joined,” Kramer said. “I’ve learned that it’s not easy to work in a group, but you have to work through it to get the job done.”
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