If there's anything fourth-grade teacher Leslie Kruse has learned in her job, it's this: Today's youngsters are hard-wired to crave technology from the time they reach for a smartphone instead of a pacifier.
"It's where they are, and we need to meet them there," Kruse said Tuesday, at the seventh annual STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher boot camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Kruse, who works at the Woodland Park campus of Colorado Springs Christian School, is one of 110 teachers from along the Front Range who are participating in the intensive, three-day program designed to improve STEM teaching skills in K-12 educators.
The Challenger Learning Center of Colorado in Colorado Springs organizes and produces the event, and the National Defense Education Program funds it.
Above all, STEM projects teach persistence, said Rob Fredell, formerly chief scientist at the Air Force Academy who now is executive director of the local Challenger Learning Center.
"The persistence in having to accomplish something at an age-appropriate level integrates so many things that stick in your brain longer than just doing problems," he said.
Kruse has been attending the summer program since 2010. The material taught is new every year, she says; this week's focus is robotics and computer coding.
By fourth grade, students are ready for something different, Kruse said.
"They've already done the grow-the-bean thing in science, they know the planets and constellations, and this is where you've got to take them," she said. "It may look like they're just playing, but they're using all the basic skills of math, reading, logic, communications, teamwork."
On the first day of the camp, teachers were learning how to digitally program a spherical robot toy by Sphero, a company in Boulder. Their task: figure out how to make the small robot move 7 feet forward in a straight line, knock down a piece of pipe, turn around and do it again, only faster.
The higher the speed, the more time it took the robot to stop, much like a car, with the exercise delivering a lesson on velocity, force and ratio.
"I love the hands-on part and that it opens new worlds for my rural students, many of whom have no idea such things exist," said Karin Pacot. She teaches kindergarten at Ellicott Elementary School in Ellicott School District 22 and runs K-12 STEM programs.
STEM projects, which many schools are trying to incorporate into the classroom and not as after-school clubs, have no boundaries, Pacot said, and reach every student, from the struggler to the high achiever.
"It puts them on a level playing field, and they're all engaged," she said. "The hands-on kid has a place as the doer, and the thinker student as the problem solver."
Funding from the Mikkelson Foundation in Monument means 24 participants will receive $250 grants to use in STEM classroom teaching. All participants take home the robots, rockets and other tools they're experimenting with at boot camp. They also receive sample lesson plans and can call for backup assistance from Challenger Learning Center of Colorado, one of 44 nonprofit centers in the nation that provide simulated space missions and other educational programs.
"It makes a difference," Kathleen Brannan, who teaches at Audubon Elementary in Colorado Springs School District 11, said about the training.
She was one of nine teachers from Audubon at the boot camp. The principal even came this year.
"Project-based learning is real learning," Brannan said. "We've been told we need to do something to invigorate the kids. This is how the kids get going."
Katie Hobbs, who will teach science at Mesa Ridge High School in Widefield School District 3 in fall, has attended the camp every year since it started in 2009.
That year, she said she realized how to tie everything together for her students.
"It felt like something was missing in my teaching, and here, it all clicked - this is how students can apply what they're learning to the real world and problem solve and learn to think for themselves," she said.
Hobbs, who has won three Teacher of the Year awards for her work with STEM, said using the principles has changed her methodology.
"What I love about STEM is it teaches me how to teach my students how to think beyond the curriculum," she said. "I see it as a way that I can connect with this generation as a teacher."