Tope Elementary embraces new curriculum

First-grade teacher Amy Modica with Kingslee Richards, left, Jesse Connor, center, and Keegan Meredith works on a math problem at Tope Elementary School, which has adopted a science, technology, engineering, art and math — or STEAM — curriculum.

It’s 10 a.m. at Tope Elementary, and Amy Modica’s first-grade class is learning how to build rafts out of apples, popsicle sticks and packing peanuts.

Their creations will be tested on two tiny plastic people in a tub of water, and sink or swim, every student will learn something through the process of designing and engineering with a team of their classmates.

Lessons like this are fast becoming the new norm at Tope Elementary School, which is in its first year of implementing its science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) curriculum and programs.

Principal Carrie Bollinger spent the last year researching different ways to take learning at Tope to the next level. The school, which once served more than 500 students, is located in the same neighborhood as the sprawling campuses of St. Mary’s Medical Center and Colorado Mesa University. As attendance dwindled to 300 students, Bollinger saw the need to revitalize the school.

Bollinger and a team of teachers visited schools across the state with different learning models before choosing a combination of STEAM and problem-based learning. For third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students, classes will center on solving a problem or issue facing the community, whether that’s too many feral cats, disappearing honey bees or trail erosion.

“When I watch kids who are engaged in solving a problem, there’s been times when I’ve gotten teary-eyed because it’s so exciting,” Bollinger said. “You see some of our kids who struggle the most become leaders because they can sit there and tinker and figure and touch and think. If you go through that engineering process, it gives you time to reflect and try again.”

When the students have found a solution, they will present to a panel of community experts.

While it’s new this year, Bollinger said students and teachers alike are fully committed to learning in a new way.

“I don’t feel like we’re dipping our toes in, I feel like we’re really diving in with the main components of STEAM, but I just think really what I would want to see long term is a refined process and that our outcomes are changing the world,” Bollinger said. “I don’t want kids to be stifled. I want them to really know that they have purpose in this world, and I think this sort of learning allows them to do that.”

Carrie Martindale’s daughter is a fourth-grade student at Tope. Martindale’s only regret about the new focus on STEAM is that it didn’t start sooner.

“I think it’s such a great opportunity for Tope and for my own child,” she said. “I think we as parents and as a district have got to offer better things for our kids.”

Bollinger said teachers and staff are building lessons and programs out of their own time and resources — including a designated makerspace classroom — but she hopes that will change as the community gets more involved.

“It’s not like we’re taking things off of our plates to do this,” Bollinger said. “It’s monumental, but we’re doing it. This is the right thing to do for kids right now.”


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