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Posted: September 01, 2014

New school aims to prepare students for STEM careers

Mike Taylor

Serial entrepreneur Vic Ahmed believes massive debt incurred by college students hinders their career development and future education options, ultimately depriving the country the full use of some of its brightest minds. He’s one of the driving forces behind the STEM Learning Center at Innovation Pavilion, set to debut in Centennial this fall with the aim of preparing students for the work force or to start their own companies right out of high school.

 “Just imagine a country in which a significant portion of the ‘best of the best’ are walking out of college with (the equivalent of) a mortgage hanging over their heads that will never go away,” says Ahmed, an angel investor and the co-founder and chairman of Innovation Pavilion, billed as an ecosystem for startups and high-growth companies.  “What risks are they going to take? They’re going to look for any job they can to start paying that monthly installment that is due. This, I think, compromises us as a country. How do we compete internationally when our best of the best are in this conundrum?”

Ahmed, who earned degrees in computer science and systems engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, says students who leave high school equipped to thrive as entrepreneurs or in well-paying jobs can then pursue relevant education as needed and not go into debt in the process. The initial class of the STEM Learning Center at Innovation Pavilion will be limited to 25 students. (“STEM” is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)

The center is partnering with HOPE Online Learning Academy Co-Op, a charter school with more than 3,000 students in 40 locations in Colorado. The school also will draw on the experience of the STEM School Academy in Highlands Ranch, which opened in 2011 and now boasts about 1,000 students. 

“Our school enrollment has almost doubled every year, which speaks to the desire of parents to give their children the preparation for a STEM career,” says Executive Director Penny Eucker, who adds that the school has partnered with Innovation Pavilion to field-test ideas for future learners.

Ahmed laid out five principles of the new STEM Learning Center at Innovation Pavilion:

•  Education without college debt.

•  Technical and educational training that’s relevant to the job market.

•  Experiential learning. “Basically internships,” Ahmed explains. “Employers want you to have experience. How do you get experience unless you work on something?”

•  Life and leadership skills.

•  Project-based learning as opposed to lecture-based learning.

“High schools today are proudest of saying, ‘This percentage of our kids went to college.’ That’s what they think their job is,” Ahmed says. “We reject that concept. Things are changing so fast now that education is lifelong. All the more reason you can’t afford to take on college debt. Our whole idea is if kids get enough skills and experience through experiential learning and internships, they can get real, paying jobs and they can continue their education on the side in stackable certificates focused on skills, not on degrees. That way they keep building their career as they move up the food chain.”

Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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