Teaching Tech at Silicon STEM Academy

Welcome to Denver's one-stop shop for all things high-tech, offering unique after-school classes for kids -- and adults, too.
Inside Silicon STEM Academy's five-room suite in southeast Denver, a soundboard with graphite conductive paint and copper wiring shows students the creative side of coding. There's a spider plant that's outfitted with a detector to sense its moisture levels. "My next project is to get the plant to text me," says co-founder John Scarborough.

From its tech toys to the beetle kill pine facades, the Academy's new digs are modern and inviting -- and sturdy, with its wood-and-metal counter height tables, selected because, "We want this space to get banged up," says John's wife and Academy co-founder, Kelly Scarborough.  

There's a strong probability of that happening, considering the Scarboroughs opened their doors in January to adolescents, teens and adults ages 10 to 17-plus. Their unique, hands-on afterschool program focuses on coding, engineering and digital media, and was developed to "fill the technology training gaps left by most schools," explains John. 

"We feel kids aren't being taught real coding skills early enough -- and, it shows," adds Kelly. In Colorado, for example, there are nearly 16,000 coding and computing jobs. Fewer than 500 students, though, are graduating with computer science degrees, and there aren't any K-12 computer science standards in local schools.

"Some kids," John continues, "aren't college bound." With the rising costs of post-secondary education, he wants to prepare high school graduates to go straight into the workforce, and calls his Academy a "white-collar vocation school."

An entrepreneurial educationFrom Coding 101 to mobile apps, the Academy's coding classes deliver a range of programs.

Silicon STEM Academy is the Scarboroughs' third business; they'd previously founded a voice over IP biz, Ip5280, and a security management company they sold to Cisco Systems in 2010.

The duo had been kicking around the idea for an after-school tech program for years, starting when their son -- currently a Colorado School of Mines student -- was in middle school. They wanted to put their son is a tech-based after-school program, and their searches always came up short. The Scarboroughs' son, like many kids, ended up teaching himself coding. "They learn whatever they can online, and they learn it poorly, usually," says John.

Silicon STEM Academy fills that void. "For the breadth and scope of the program we deliver, there's really nothing like it," says John.

The school opened in Dec. 2015 with a few workshops, and six-week-long classes began on Jan. 11, with about 50 students spread over six different programs. All classes are held after school, and are either 18 or 24 hours in all. The Scarboroughs intend to add more courses to future sessions, and are looking forward to a busy summer, as online registration for the Academy's summer camp program opened on Monday, Feb. 1.

From Coding 101 to Java I and II, C++, Python and Mobile App Development, the Academy's coding classes deliver a range of programs, typically to adolescents ages 12 to 15 -- though, the premiere Coding 101 session welcomed a 64-year-old cardiologist who wanted to bond with his son over technology.

The Academy's six engineering offerings represent experiential learning at its very best. Take Gadgets & Gizmos I or II: Enrolled students get their own Inventor's Kit courtesy of Niwot-based SparkFun Electronics. After learning simple circuitry, students can create potentiometers and accelerometers, among others. "Minus the communications component, you could build an iPhone with this kit," says John.

"As a company whose business is based in high-tech development, we find it very encouraging that Silicon STEM Academy has taken it on themselves to teach challenging skills," says Jeff Branson, SparkFun's Educational Outreach Coordinator. "The staff at Silicon STEM is reaching out with new programs that directly relate to the power of open-source technology and how students enter a path of learning that teaches the mindsets and real skills that we see in the innovation economy."

Tech appealSilicon STEM Academy co-founders John and Kelly Scarborough.

LEGO Robotics is another popular class, where beginners familiarize themselves with the engineering design process and basic programming that goes into building a fully functioning robot with LEGO Mindstorms. The course is a bridge to the next layer: TETRIX Robotics, an intermediate offering for ages 11 to 17.

A Saturday morning Craft Tech class caters specifically to girls, making technology more accessible, especially for middle school-aged girls who might feel intimidated in co-ed courses. Even as our county pushes STEM, the percentage of women graduating with a STEM degree has declined 30 percent in past decade, says John, citing a CSU study.

Digital media classes provide lessons in Photoshop and video editing, and tutoring and SAT and ACT prep are also available. 

You might notice age limits accompanying the online course descriptions. Don't feel bound to those suggestions. "We started off with some lower limits, and some of the younger kids shocked us," Kelly says, adding, "Now, we fudge it." If your fifth grader is advanced, they're welcome to up-level. As for upper age limits, the Scarboroughs welcome adults into their after-school program, and will be adding adult coding classes later this year.

The teachers are a point of distinction. The Scarboroughs have recruited and hired a staff of technology experts, ranging from robotics teachers to chief technology officers at leading tech companies

As the program takes off, Kelly says, "We really hope to expand." The Scarboroughs are considering a satellite campus, and they're also working with smaller schools that aren't equipped with in-house STEM labs.

Curious? Drop by for a monthly open house -- the next one's Saturday, Feb. 20, from 10 a.m, to noon. Kids and parents are invited to see the cutting-edge space and meet the Academy's instructors. There will also be live robotics demonstrations, and Saturday Hack Club members will be around, working on Minecraft modeling. Prices for classes and workshops vary; check online for details. And keep an eye out for free workshops, which are occasionally offered.
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Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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