The highlight of middle school teacher Laurie Elwick’s summer?

Being a student for three days.

“It’s what I do to get my mind back on teaching,” she said Wednesday.

Elwick, a physics teacher at Colorado Military Academy, a K-9 charter school near Peterson Air Force Base, is one of 120 elementary, middle and high school teachers from 70 schools attending the ninth annual STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Boot Camp.

Held at Bear Creek Elementary School in Monument, the three-day training is presented by Challenger Learning Center in Colorado Springs, a program of the Colorado Consortium for Earth and Space Science Education.

From programming a simple spherical robot to using 3-D printing pens, to learning fun water activities from Colorado Springs Utilities to finding STEM concepts in picture books, participants are exposed to a range of activities they can take back to their classrooms.

The goal, said Rob Fredell, president and CEO of Challenger Learning Center in Colorado Springs, is to give teachers new ideas that go beyond traditional science curriculum but still meet today’s academic standards.

“We’re trying to develop a comfort and familiarity with robotics and coding,” Fredell said. “It doesn’t take away from the fundamentals, such as literacy, math and geography, but adds to them.”

The program has become so popular that 75 elementary slots filled up in less than one day, Fredell said, and the overall waiting list grew to 40 for this summer’s session.

The agenda changes yearly. Challenger Learning Center Education Director Ron Bush said he looks for “what’s new and cutting-edge in educational technology and resources.”

“It’s not just kind of cool, it’s super cool,” said Chantel Estes, a K-6 English teacher at Roxborough Primary and Intermediate School in Littleton, in Douglas County School District RE-1.

“We’re trying to communicate with kids in a language they understand, in a way we understand,” she said, while manipulating a small robot’s movements with a cellphone and sequencing from “Three Little Pigs” and the “Big Bad Wolf” fairy tale.

“This gives hands-on opportunities and time to network with other teachers around the state doing the same thing,” Estes said of the training.

Each participant receives a $430 robotics kit from Boulder-based Sphero Edu and other STEM resources for classroom use.

Grant funding of $53,000 from the Siegel Family Endowment and the Mikkelson Foundation is paying for the swag, Bush said. The Air Force Academy also is a program sponsor.

Elwick already knows what her students will be doing.

“I was so excited, I called my principal at home, and he said to go for it,” she said.

Elwick signed up her sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students to be part of a NASA Kennedy Space Center grant project, “Growing Beyond Earth,” in conjunction with Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens in Miami.

Colorado Military Academy students will conduct plant research with provided supplies and forward data they collect to the International Space Station.

Since 2015, more than 15,000 students have gathered research on the growth and development of 106 varieties of edible plants for further experimentation on the International Space Station.

“They’ll be applying scientific principles of growing, measuring and charting with physics principles of light,” Elwick said.

Many teachers are afraid to slip science into curriculum because they don’t have a scientific background, said Neva Nardonne, a fourth-grade teacher at Lewis-Palmer Elementary School in Monument.

She’s both a Boot Camp attendee and a presenter on EleSTEMary, a program that each month unites teachers from around the region to talk about STEM ideas that can be easily incorporated into class time.

“You don’t have to know all the components because the kids get engaged and learn as they work through things and solve problems,” she said.

Science can be spread throughout all subjects, Nardonne said.

“The scientific process is a thinking process,” she said. “The whole purpose is to get students to learn better.”

Just like the teachers are doing in Boot Camp this week.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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