Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 has received a $2.5 million grant to create an innovative program that will focus on some of education's hottest topics, including biotechnology and engineering.

The program, for students in grades 4 through 12, is called "The Systemic Bridge Between Science and Math," and D-8 will partner with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs for a variety of projects.

"We are seeing endless possibilities for our kids. It will be transformational," said Debbie Pierre, former D-8 assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, who wrote the grant and will oversee implementation. She will be working with D-8 administrator Clint Allison, who will be project director.

The biotechnology and engineering classes will begin this fall at Fountain-Fort Carson High School and Carson Middle School, along with Abrams, Patriot and Mountainside elementary schools.

The $2.5 million program is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity, which provides financial help for schools - like those in D-8 - that have high numbers of military children. The effort of the DoDEA is to increase educational opportunities for such students, who are often faced with frequent moves and other challenges.

A component of the program will provide a school "integrationist," an administrator who will assist new military students and their parents to make the transition to a new school go smoothly through help with orientation, initial testing and district expectations.

Educating students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is part of a nationwide and statewide push to better prepare students for the future.

"We want to provide more hands-on real world experience that will educate and inspire them to choose careers in those areas," Pierre said. Both D-8 teachers and students will be mentored by the UCCS professors.

STEM labs with state-of-the-art equipment are being created in the participating D-8 schools, and new curriculum will be set in place.

"We have students with so much potential for this and they have wanted and needed more rigor," Pierre said. "We've had chemistry and physics, but not extensive biotech and engineering opportunities."

They are catching kids early in hopes of inspiring them. Fourth and fifth grades, for example, will use educational engineering kits, and interactive microscopes. At the high school, a new software program called Vernier allows students to graph and analyze data in real time.

D-8 will work with UCCS's Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education, and UCCS professors will mentor students and also help the D-8 teachers create engaging STEM classes.

"It's really exciting for us," said Dave Khaliqi, director of the UCCS center, which was created six years ago to address the shortage of skilled STEM workers and improve student academic performance in those areas. The center also holds weekend and summer camps for students in grades 6-12.

Khaliqi noted that students who have participated have been three times more likely than the national average to declare STEM majors in college.

Of the top 10 jobs of the future, as listed by the U.S. Department of Labor, seven are in the STEM area, he said.

District 8 has hired two additional STEM teachers - one at Carson Middle School and another at Fountain-Fort Carson High School. The program will even include sessions for parents, so they can better understand the classes and encourage their children toward a STEM path, Pierre said.

Even students not interested in STEM careers gain great benefits from such classes because they teach problem-solving. For example, engineering breaks complex problems into small parts and then puts everything back together within the solution. "Any student will make use of that," Khaliqi said.

Said Pierre: "We hope to inspire all kids, even the kids who didn't think they had the desire or ability to pursue science and math careers."