Peabody College team rethinks education ecosystem in Sterling Ranch project

A STEM School Academy student explains her project to, from left, EdD student Kristin Baese, Assistant Professor Claire Smrekar and education major Kate Tarne. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

Add some computers and a Smart Board or two, and most modern school days look a lot like the ones our grandparents experienced: Sit down, learn, leave.

Peabody College of education and human development is rethinking everything about educational delivery and, thanks to a unique partnership, will enjoy access to a next-gen community in which to try new ideas.

A professor and three students from the college are part of a Vanderbilt University team collaborating with Sterling Ranch, Colorado, a planned community that will feature cutting-edge environmental engineering, smart city technology and – the education group hopes – schools unlike anything we see today.

They want to incorporate the surrounding community into lessons that prepare students for college and career aspirations, whether those involve the science and engineering that will permeate Sterling Ranch or music, art and outdoor life inspired by the beauty of Colorado’s Front Range outside their windows.

“You hear that oftentimes schooling gets in the way of your education,” said Kristin Baese, who is pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership. “How can we put it back where it needs to be? How can we use Sterling Ranch not just as a textbook but encourage people engaged in the professional community to become teachers alongside traditional staff — instead of only serving as token guest speakers on career days? How can a hydrologist plan a unit with a third-grade teacher and co-deliver the curriculum?”

Claire Smrekar, associate professor of public policy and education, said she selected Baese and Eve Rifkin, another EdD student, for a recent Sterling Ranch team trip to the site so they could assess the project’s scope for potential 2016-17 capstones – the culminating research project for doctoral students in education leadership at Peabody. Elementary education undergraduate Kate Tarne made the trip as part of the Peabody Scholars program, which gives students stipends to pursue faculty-led field research.

They spent the first two days gathering context for Sterling Ranch research alongside the entire Vanderbilt team and then, on the final day, broke off to tour STEM School Academy in neighboring Highlands Ranch. School leaders would like an opportunity to open a second location in Sterling Ranch and incorporate Vanderbilt’s research into educational delivery there.

Along with a variety of other government leaders, Douglas County Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen addressed the entire Vanderbilt team – which includes engineering, sociology and arts and sciences professors and students — about educational innovation already underway.


There’s a spot for a new K-8 school in Sterling Ranch’s initial neighborhood, Providence Village, where model homes will be open by fall. At the planned community’s completion in 20 years, about 31,000 residents will live in 12,000 homes.Rifkin, who co-founded City High charter school in Tucson, Arizona, said she wants Sterling Ranch’s educational ecosystem to incorporate lessons learned in launching her own school.

“There are so many decisions in the early school design phases. Those tend to stick, and they have the hugest implications months and years down the road,” she said. “To get on the ground level knowing what I know 10 years past founding a school is an incredible opportunity.

“If they want to have innovative schools, Sterling Ranch’s education leaders will have to be curious, open and willing to take risks and break with tradition.”

The Peabody group will start by researching state standards and learning Douglas County parental preferences and educational priorities.

The partnership is funded through a Trans-institutional Program Grant, offered by the university to encourage cross-campus collaboration.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering

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