Imagine attending a middle school where, in addition to learning algebra, history and reading and writing, each day includes interactions with aviation and aerospace experts and hands-on STEAM experiences. Think of projects like launching a high-altitude balloon carrying your science experiments and weather trackers, all as a part of your daily curriculum.
SKIES is a charter school in the Cherry Creek School District with a STEAM-focused curriculum and special emphasis on aviation. We approached the planning and design of this unique project with open minds and a desire to reshape how the future talent pipeline of the aviation industry learned industry specifics and developed skills. Embedded in the local community, our Castle Rock team designed through a community-driven lens bringing partners together to create real-world opportunities for students and leave a lasting impact. According to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, the Colorado aerospace community is a critical driver of the state’s economic growth. Colorado aerospace employment also saw a 30 percent increase over the past five years, outpacing national growth by 12 percent. The educational experience at SKIES is helping to develop the next generation of workers skilled in the aerospace industry and creating a pipeline of great talent who can work in California, Washington or, most importantly, stay in Colorado.
Building the runway for a great aerospace education
Nearly 280 aerospace businesses and more than 500 suppliers call Colorado home, making the Denver area a recruiting hub for space startups around the world. With the highest concentration of private aerospace workers in the nation, the state houses the U.S. Department of Defense facilities, NASA research and development facilities, U.S. Space Command and the Air Force Academy, as well as the United Launch Alliance which makes rockets for the international space station and Lockheed Martin who is responsible for the Mars Lander. Many of these are located just a stone’s throw from SKIES.
As the first middle school in the country to be located on an active air strip, SKIES brings a free educational experience to students introducing them to aviation and aerospace through hands-on learning. Project-based learning and professional exposure boosts students’ imaginations and drives innovation.
“When you look in their eyes and you see the expression and the excitement about what they’re doing, what they’re learning – that is going to set them up for success,” said Wings Over the Rockies President Maj. Gen. John Barry. “It really is understanding the art of the possible, and what a unique time this is for aerospace.”
Building for Priorities
SKIES is the result of a partnership with the Cherry Creek School District, Maker Learning Network and Wings Over the Rockies, and is part of the Exploration of Flight campus, which showcases what the future of aerospace can be. It’s a unique partnership, to say the least.
In designing SKIES, our team made collaboration, innovation and security top priorities. The design was centered around creating an open-air environment with flexible classrooms, active corridors and engaging graphics. Inside, a runway-like space running through the middle of the entire facility provides opportunities for students to get out of the classroom and work together in teams or study independently. Near the entrance of the school is the Exploratorium, a large space resembling a rocket booster where hands-on STEAM activities occur, and the commons features large garage doors opening outside to the adjacent runway.
Project: REAL WORLD
“There are kids who would be amazing engineers or pilots but don’t know that those careers exist,” says Kathleen Fredette, director of STEAM Initiatives at Maker Learning Network. “This school broadens the horizon for children to see where they may fit to bring their own specific gifts to the realm of aerospace.”
The project-based learning approach teaches students how to work together on big challenges and opportunities, and how to take on real-world issues requiring critical thinking and collaboration.
Each project ends with a Presentation of Learning, where the students present to the larger group for feedback and build critical communication skills. The results have been incredible – since the school opened in 2019, students have learned about visualization strategy (the process of creatively coming up with ways to solve problems) while launching a high-altitude weather balloon, which required permission from the FAA. Thanks to Maker Learning Network’s connection with NASA and SpaceX, students were also part of a team to send an experiment to the International Space Station.
The future of aerospace starts early
While it’s fun for middle schoolers to learn about airplanes and space stations, it’s also creating significant impact for the local community and Colorado. Developing future-ready skills are crucial to workforce success, and by focusing on socio-emotional development of students, we’re helping to build the next generation of teammates and leaders.
“It’s not easy being the forerunners and doing something new that hasn’t been done before, especially in education. This is a hallmark for the community and the school district. It’s an opportunity to have a model for learning that can be replicated in another field as well, and that is a huge opportunity,” said Fredette.
When done right, charter schools lead innovation at the intersection of learning and place. It’s exciting to see what students can do in the right environment.