Powerful Practices: Q&A with St. Vrain Schools’ Michael O’Toole on Fostering Future Scientists

At St. Vrain Valley School District, students apply their passions for science in the real world.

Thanks to a series of community outreach efforts, students at the Longmont, CO school district are being immersed in their science education through a career context. Students work with scientists, researchers, and city officials to learn how science is applied in real-life dynamics, and then return to the classroom with renewed vigor for discovery.

Michael O’Toole, the K-12 science coordinator at St. Vrain Valley schools, has a vision for how STEM can be applied across all subjects to build a stronger foundation for future learners. In this interview with Discovery Education, O’Toole shares some of the exciting things happening at St. Vrain, and where he sees the future of STEM heading.

O’Toole will be leading a session on science leadership at Discovery Education’s March 10 Powerful Practices instructional leadership event in Seattle, WA.

You’re hosting a session at Powerful Practices this year — what message will you be bringing to the conference?

O’TOOLE: I would like to share the message of a 21st-century science experience — one in which there are no barriers, where the walls of our classrooms are removed, and students can explore the world each and every day. Our goal is to equip students with the right resources to become tomorrow’s scientists today, and the only barriers should be the imaginations of our students and teachers.

In traditional education practices, you’re limited to the content knowledge of the instructor. What we’re doing in St. Vrain is opening the world to our students and teachers like never before — unleashing the learning and contributions they can make. In science we have an opportunity to become citizen scientists, where students can not only learn, but help contribute to something bigger than themselves. We have students learning alongside national park researchers, park rangers, city planners, and even shark researchers — our students created lasers that helped measure these sharks — all of this contributes to the overall knowledge of our community and planet as well as giving students real-world experiences.

How does St. Vrain balance the pursuit of fun, educational projects like the ones you’ve mentioned with the requirement that you meet state standards in education?

O’TOOLE: It takes a different mindset of looking at how these types of classroom projects and activities can drive students to mastery of subject content. We are seeing a shift in St. Vrain as our teachers work to design projects and lessons in which students are able to experience science in the real world while keeping their focus on the state standards. A good number of our teachers relish the challenge of bringing state and national standards to life, and in finding ways that require students to demonstrate understanding of content in order to reach their desired goal. To strike that balance, I believe the key is starting small but dreaming big.

St. Vrain’s school district is very hands-on with its science program. Why do you think that’s an important part of the learning process — particularly in the science classroom?

O’TOOLE: I think it’s important to emphasize a growth mindset, finding new and creative ways to allow students to experience the wonder of science. We’re fortunate to have a 1:1 environment, in which our secondary students each have an iPad, but we are still committed to a hands-on science experience. In today’s digital world, maintaining a balance between hands-on experiences and digital content has become important. We’re finding new ways to use Discovery Education Science Techbook as a platform to enhance the hands-on experience of our students. We are always looking for ways to incorporate 21st century skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. This mindset allows our teachers to push past previous limits of traditional educational practices, unleashing the learning and contribution potential of our future scientists.

I know that St. Vrain is all about instilling a culture of innovation. How do you help students become lead learners?

O’TOOLE: We want our students to become critical thinkers and innovators — to read and write like scientists and to explore science in new, creative ways, and we are asking just as much from our teachers. They are now challenged with finding innovative ways to bring their passions and expertise to the classroom — to spark student curiosity. We’re equipping our students and teachers with everything they need to be successful, but most importantly in fostering innovation, providing them with the permission to fail and learn as they move forward — not being afraid to take risks.

STEM/STEAM programs have really taken off across the country in recent years. What do you think the future looks like for STEM education?

O’TOOLE: What I’m hoping is that we continue to foster the development of cross-curricular connections in our classrooms. Instead of STEM being treated as a separate subject, it’s infused in every content area. As you bring cross-curricular concepts together, it all begins to blend together, and you forget you’re in a science classroom. That’s what I’m hoping we see more of.

How has St. Vrain helped support equity of access to educational resources?

O’TOOLE: A key value in St. Vrain is that all schools have equal access to technology and curricular resources. Our leadership has been strategic to make sure that every school has been equally equipped. This creates a level playing field for all students and teachers, so that their imagination should be the only barrier in how they explore the sciences.

How are you supporting teachers to help them grow their STEM/STEAM instructional skills?

O’TOOLE:  As we incorporate STEM instruction, we practice the design-thinking process. An important part of the design-thinking process is empathy, and we cannot forget this when considering the professional growth opportunities for our staff. We have to relate to our staff members, whether they are beginning-level teachers or veteran teachers with a full range of familiarity and expertise with STEM. A transition in educational practice like this is not easy and being able to provide support for all is critical.

Probably one of the most important contributors to the success in our district is the hard work of our professional development, curriculum and learning technology teams. They are strategic in their instruction and make sure that teachers understand they are not alone in this process. They model what we hope every teacher will model; the importance of being a lifelong learner.


For information on attending this year’s free Powerful Practices events in San Francisco and Seattle, visit the official website.

At Powerful Practices, attendees will:

  • Hear from nationally renowned experts as they address equity and excellence.
  • Collaborate with colleagues in breakout sessions featuring powerful practices in the areas of personalized learning, student engagement, culturally responsive classrooms, and formative assessment.
  • Participate in interactive hands-on activities highlighting student-centered learning practices.
  • Attend a panel discussion in which regional colleagues discuss powerful strategies to get teachers to best practices.

All registered attendees will have access to the following breakout sessions:

  • Personalized Learning
  • Literacy
  • Culturally Responsive Classrooms
  • Student Engagement
  • Instructional Leadership Best Practices in Math, Social Studies, Science, and STEM

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