STEM Beginnings

By Amy Jewett Sampson

There are no baby steps in the Valor Institute for Applied STEM. Just finishing its second year, school leaders are already making strides towards changing the way Valor students experience the world of STEM. The leadership team of Rick Russon, Darin Pearson, and Shandra Pankoski teamed up to kick off research for the plans of the new Valor STEM building. 

What better place to find inspiration for the future of Valor’s STEM endorsement than Silicon Valley’s innovation giant – Apple, Inc.? 

“We wanted to learn what ‘state-of-the-art’ really meant,” says Mr. Pearson, Campus IT and Strategic STEM Initiatives Lead, “and equip our future building with the best technology.”

Early in the 2019 fall semester, Valor’s team traveled to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California to see for themselves what sets apart this tech industry leader. Their visit centered on Apple Park (the name of Apple’s headquarters) to gain inspiration for innovation in action. Immediately, the complex is set apart from any other corporate center. The cars of some 12,000 employees were parked conveniently underground, with an eight lane, two-way road going in and out of the campus. 

Valor’s visiting team at Apple Headquarters got to work on and utilize the latest high-tech products and take back what they learned to Valor’s STEM students. “We took a frog and placed it on the desk. It was a virtual frog that you could see through the iPad. Instead of the way we did it in Biology class, where you’re pulling a frog out of formaldehyde, you’re doing it all virtual[ly] with your Apple Pencil. I can identify body parts, take out the lungs…It’s a better learning experience for kids,” Mr. Pearson explained. Using an iPad for something like a dissection, allows for an engaging educational experience while cutting down on classroom costs for disposable items.

An aerial shot of Apple Park in Silicon Valley, California. The STEM Team was inspired by the technology and use of space to promote creative thinking and problem solving.

Preparing Tomorrow’s Leaders

By understanding powerful technology like AI (artificial intelligence), AR, and Machine Learning, coding and computer programming, Valor students are empowered to become tomorrow’s leaders in the tech industry. Gen Z’s future careers depend on technology literacy, and that expectation is exploding at a rapid pace. Mr. Russon’s goals for Valor STEM are aligned with where he sees this future headed. “Valor STEM wants to create Christian leaders in the technical fields,” he says.

Mr. Pearson agreed, “We need someone with a good moral compass designing all of these things.” He used the example of how an autonomous car must stop to protect the lives of pedestrians, but also protect the driver at the same time. Valor STEM endeavors to equip future engineers to not only have the knowledge to create this kind of technology, but to use their moral compass to save lives and protect others.

The STEM research team also brought back some real-world, moral dilemmas from Apple to discuss with current students. Things like user privacy policies opened up key ethics conversations. “[This] is helping inform students. Even those questions of getting information, ‘What do you do with it?’, ‘How much can you share?’ – Those kinds of conversations are important,” affirmed STEM Curriculum Lead Mrs. Pankoski.

Students Lead the Way

Visiting Apple’s state-of-the-art facility inspired the team to dig deeper and look at the impact and opportunities presented by this global brand.  The team looked to Ethan Holden and Caleb Rotello, who both graduated from Valor and excelled in AP Computer Science, Programming Competitions, Computer Programming, and Math; as perfect examples of how Valor and Apple intersect — offering real-world experience. 

As lead programmers for the First Responder Wellness App, the two teamed up to develop an application for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.  The app provides frontline workers with a way to connect and find peer support when dealing with the day-to-day stresses associated with their jobs. Once fully rolled out, more than 10,000 first responders in the Denver Metro Area will be supported by the application.

Today, Caleb is enrolled at Colorado School of Mines and Ethan currently attends Colorado State University.  With their aspirations first realized at Valor, both are continuing their educational pursuit in the Computer Sciences field.  

Even in its early stages, Valor’s STEM program aims to become a hub of innovation to transform the world for Christ. Mr. Russon’s vision is to embrace a partnership with Valor Discovery to bring STEM solutions to other countries and address issues like clean water shortage, crop growth, and lack of electricity. He believes that “STEM gives us the tools to better examine God’s creation in more detail and solve world problems.”

With a foundation in Biblical principles and cutting-edge technology, STEM students like Ethan and Caleb are leading through excellence as they show future students how STEM fields are critical in helping to solve today’s real-world challenges. The Valor Institute for Applied STEM is ready to equip and prepare those students who follow in their footsteps with a solid start, and it’s only just beginning.

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