For a single evening, dinosaurs reigned in the Independence Elementary School cafeteria.
Parents and teachers alike fawned over the casts of allosaurus and diplodocus skulls on display on tables set up in the space by the Morrison Natural History Museum. They had no qualms about handling a sample of coprolite, better known as fossilized dinosaur feces.
Doug Hartshorn, a coordinator from the museum just down the road from Red Rocks Amphitheater, was happy to field questions and offer details and context about the creatures that roamed across Colorado millions of years ago.
"We want to be able to have people learn about our museum," Hartshorn said. "We want them to learn about local paleontology."
That mission aligned neatly with the larger event taking place at Independence Elementary on Jan. 18. Hartshorn and the fossils were visiting the school as part of "Dive into STEM," a celebration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The school opened its doors to the community for the entire evening, and hosted a wide array of activities, guest presenters and family fun. Hartshorn joined STEM professionals from the Independence community for interactive displays, and students had the opportunity to present school projects to parents, grandparents and other community members.
"We want to involve all of our parents and community members in educational opportunities. This is a great way to open our doors and welcome everybody," said Sherri Tobin, an instructional coach at the school. "We really want to honor the parents who work in STEM careers and encourage our students to see what opportunities there are."
Parents from the fields of electricity, finance and fire safety joined representatives from Lockheed Martin, the Wings Over the Rockies museum and Denver Gems in the "STEM Studio" set up in the cafeteria. Students from each grade level took part in unique activities that included a Cardboard Challenge workshop, an invention station, a balance and motion class, a bridge project, a planet-based display and hand-made inventions incorporating Makey-Makey electronic invention kits. The event drew hundreds of visitors.
It wasn't the first time Independence opened its doors to welcome the community and celebrate learning. The school has run science- and literacy-based events in the past as Title I Family nights. According to Independence Principal Lisa Morris, such celebrations encourage a high degree of communal involvement.
"It's a community building experience," Morris said. "This gives the students the chance to showcase their work to their families and feel proud."
This year's "Dive into STEM" event also offered students the opportunity to gain a perspective from the wider Cherry Creek School District family. Eaglecrest High School sophomore Dustin Carlson was on hand to talk to students about a special project he'd worked on when still a student at Horizon Middle School. Along with dozens of his peers, Carlson used design software and onsite 3-D printers to produce a prosthetic limb for a local disabled veteran in 2015 and 2016.
Carlson brought samples of that work to the Horizon cafeteria on Jan. 18, and took the opportunity to encourage current elementary students to explore the possibilities of STEM.
"I want to get these kids to see that 3-D printing, science and engineering can be fun," said Carlson, who plans to study biomedical engineering in the military. "It's a great rush."
Other presenters wanted to show off the more practical uses of a STEM-based approach to learning. TJ Lopeman, a father of two current students at Independence, stood in front of a massive kitchen hood display that included a working fire extinguisher and alarm panel. A former electrician who currently specializes in fire safety equipment, Lopeman showed off alarms and flashing lights to interested fairgoers. He wanted to show that a rewarding career in STEM wasn't a far-off endeavor reserved for those who spend many years earning college degrees. STEM can also lead to high-paying jobs for those interested in pursuing a Career and Technical educational path.
"It's really good for me to show that there's an opportunity to make a good living from (STEM)," Lopeman said. "They didn't talk about that too much when I was a kid."