Spurring outreach at CSU Spur

It’s hard to miss CSU Spur while driving through Denver, Colorado. Three buildings made up of intricate and nature-inspired architecture – Terra, Vida, and Hydro – comprise CSU’s free public learning destination located at the National Western Center.

The College of Natural Sciences was integral to the development of CSU Spur’s reputable programming and has three educational offerings taking place at the Denver campus: LIFE biology courses for adult learners, the Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center, and Little Shop of Physics.

LIFE courses

This fall, the Department of Biology rolled out its first offerings of LIFE 102 and LIFE 103 biology courses, which will be available both online and in person at CSU Spur. The first courses available to students launched in Fall 2023.

“We are seeking to increase accessibility and inclusivity of biological education in our communities,” said Zoe D’Agostino, co-coordinator and instructor in the CSU Spur-based LIFE Biology programs. “We are targeting students who are maybe working professionals coming back to their educations, or maybe they’re full-time parents looking for educational options. It’s a very wide net.”

Designed with nontraditional learners in mind, the program entails online, self-paced lectures provided through multiple mediums so students can choose learning styles to fit their needs. Four times a semester, students will also complete live laboratory activities and experiments with their classmates at CSU Spur’s state-of-the-art Hydro building.

Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center

A child plays with a stream table full of sand and water, two adults look on.
A child engages with the Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center’s stream table at CSU Spur. Photo by CSU Spur

The College of Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center’s director, Andrew Warnock, has been involved in the CSU Spur planning process since 2015.

Deeply embedded in CSU’s outreach initiatives, specifically as they relate to education and solving wicked problems, Warnock saw, early on, the opportunities CSU Spur represented.

“Energy and water are fundamental resources that underlie most everything else, including food,” he said. “Seeing firsthand how the Powerhouse Energy campus was catalyzing research into grand energy challenges, I immediately recognized that the Spur campus would do the same for water.”

Warnock was specifically involved in the initial planning process for Spur’s Hydro building, which opened in January 2023.

“I flooded (pun intended!) the committees with long lists of ideas for the new center,” said Warnock. “Persistence paid off, and I am happy that many of those ideas became a reality, including the first-floor teaching lab with an office, prep room, mudroom, direct access to the South Platte River, stream table, and exhibits.”

We’re holding doors open so the Denver community not only feels welcome but that they’re a part of Spur.

Heather Michalak, Director,
Little Shop of Physics

NSEOC specializes in engaging learners in authentic scientific research coming directly from CSU faculty and hopes to expand its impact and outreach via this collaboration with CSU Spur.

“Spur is a geographically convenient bridge between us and CSU Pueblo,” said Warnock. “All three campuses [CSU Fort Collins, CSU Pueblo, and CSU Global] must work together to generate more enthusiasm among precollege students for the STEM fields and career paths. There is no road map that we can follow to solve many of the global issues we currently face. We need everyone to participate by bringing their perspectives and life experiences to the table. Music, art, poetry, language, science, mathematics, open source/access, dialogue, culture, etc., are coming together at Spur, and I hope it makes a splash (like the Hydro building’s facade), sending ripples across the globe!”

Little Shop of Physics

The college’s other outreach arm, Little Shop of Physics, received a five-year grant from CSU Spur to bring on a new STEM engagement coordinator to engage directly with the Denver communities.

Thus, Olivia Santiago was hired to the Little Shop team in September 2022, and has been assisting with their Denver-based outreach ever since.

A child and Little Shop of Physics employee in a tie-dye shirt stand over a table at CSU Spur working on a project involving colored pencils. There are other students and Little Shop of Physics employees behind them.
Olivia Santiago (right), Little Shop’s STEM engagement coordinator, engages with a student at CSU Spur. Photo by CSU Spur

“Olivia is connecting even deeper into the roots of the community,” said Heather Michalak, director of Little Shop of Physics, “through places like the Bird Seed Collective,” a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and enabling the disadvantaged and the under-resourced throughout the Denver Metro area.

Part of Little Shop’s outreach strategy involves connecting with local schools and community centers, such as the neighborhoods bordering CSU Spur: Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.

“I want kids to know that they can do whatever they want,” said Santiago. “If they want to do science, then they can do that. They have as much right to this knowledge as anyone else.”

Local students as young as prekindergarten will design experiments, aided by Little Shop team members, which will be on a rotational monthly display at CSU Spur, not only encouraging them to get creative but also to feel empowered about their work. Little Shop plans to host an event to celebrate the students’ work and to welcome local families to CSU Spur.

“We’re holding the doors open,” said Michalak, “so the Denver community not only feels welcome but that they’re a part of Spur.”

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