Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
STEM: Teaching critical thinking for the new age
editor's pick top story

STEM: Teaching critical thinking for the new age


The city of Flagstaff has had a history of science, technology, engineering and math-based organizations from the construction of the Lowell Observatory to W.L. Gore and the U.S. Forest Service.

Flagstaff STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) City, local schools and more than 60 different businesses with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math will celebrate that history and five years of Flagstaff being one of America’s first STEM cities at Monday’s STEM City Celebration. Flagstaff STEM City partners schools with professionals and creates kits that teachers can use to bring science into the classroom.

Bringing these skills into the classroom and showing students that STEM skills aren’t just for geeks is important for increasing the pipeline of people interested in STEM careers and for increasing science literacy in the population at large, said Dave Engelthaler, the director of TGen North and the past chair of the STEM City board of directors. TGen is a nonprofit genetic research institute that has a campus in Flagstaff. The STEM fields teach students and parents how to think critically and search out information. Even if those students don’t go into a STEM field, learning to think critically is important.

“It’s part of what we need to be successful as community and a nation,” he said. “It’s important to making good public policy and making evidence based decisions.”

There are multiple STEM programs at multiple schools in the Flagstaff area. At Coconino and Flagstaff High School students in the Career and Technical Education program are putting the STEM skills they learn in class into practice.

“In the 1920s and ‘30s these would have been called Industrial Arts and Home Economic classes, in the ‘50s and ‘60s they were Vocational Education classes. It’s about workforce development, can we give them the skills they need for the jobs or secondary education they want,” Flagstaff Unified School District CTE Director Doug Allen said.

For example, the high schools’ culinary arts programs not only teach students how to slice, dice and cook but they incorporate math in dividing and doubling a recipe and the science of how dough rises or foods cook, said Patti Pastor, one of the Culinary Arts teachers at Flagstaff High.

The district’s automotive technology teaches hands-on skills on how to repair a car and the skills to run the technical computer equipment to diagnose car problems and fix them, said Automotive Technology teacher Brian Locke.

Coconino is one of seven high schools and colleges that offer Automotive Service Excellence certification program in the state, he said. A student who finishes Coconino High School’s Automotive Technologies can apply for and receive certification and can start work as an auto technician in any state after graduation from high school.

In the six years that Locke has run the program at Coconino High, he has 30 students graduate the program and find jobs in the automotive field. At least 10 of the graduates work locally and nine are working in the Phoenix area.

But today’s CTE classes go beyond what was once considered “Shop” and “Home Ec.”

Students in Trish Cooke’s Early Childhood Education classes work in Flagstaff High School’s Eagles Crest Child Enrichment Center. It’s a state licensed and working day care and preschool. Students learn how to take care of children that range in age from newborn to about 4-years-old, but also learn how to encourage the children’s curiosity and social skills through age-appropriate educational programs. All high school students in the program are supervised by a licensed adult, according to Center Co-Director Debra King.

Support Local Journalism

Your membership makes our reporting possible.

Flagstaff and Coconino High School also offer programs in welding technologies, cabinetmaking, digital photography, business management, sports medicine, graphic/web design, precision machining, interior design and merchandising, film and TV.

Three quarters of the 1,500 students at Flagstaff High School will take a CTE class at some point before they graduate, Allen said. Most get their first taste during their freshman year, when students are encourage to take a yearlong rotation to test drive all seven programs. Students get a sense of what they like and don’t like and what they may want to pursue, he said.

Some students, like Sophomore Josh Garduno and Junior Jackson Gilmore, knew what CTE classes they wanted to get into. Garduno is part of Coconino High School’s CocoNuts FIRST Robotics Team. Both of his parents are engineers and his brother was one of the founding members of the team. He’s hoping to study mechanical or electrical engineering in college.

Gilmore is part of Flagstaff High’s Culinary Arts competition team. He entered the culinary program because his dad said that’s where he’d find the most girls. Gilmore quickly found that he had an aptitude for cooking and has enjoyed not only the friendships he’s made with classmates, but competing at the regional and state level in cooking contests.

These culinary contests are not your typical cookie making, cake baking contests, according to Pastor. Students competing in the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program are expected to create a three course meal in a 10 inch by 10 inch area in less than three hours. Students competing in the National Restaurant Association’s ProStart competition show their food making and business skills, by creating dishes and showing how they would run a restaurant’s books.

These competitions can net students full-ride scholarships to some of the most prestigious culinary schools in the U.S., Pastor said. One Flag High student earned a $104,000 scholarship to go to Johnson and Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts.

Gilmore plans sharpen his skills by spending three months this summer cooking at a fishing lodge in the wilds of Alaska. The lodge gets two main shipments of food by barge and fresh produce delivered by float plane when new customers come into the lodge, he said.

A lot of the funding for CTE programs comes from a joint technical education district, the Coconino Association for Vocations, Industry and Technology, that was formed 2001 by a group of school districts in Coconino County. The district, which gets funding from secondary property taxes and state appropriations, had to be approved by voters. The Flagstaff school district joined CAVIAT in 2004. Allen also works to get funding for various CTE program through grants and donations.

As a STEM business, Engelthaler said it’s hard to measure the success that STEM City and the STEM based programs in the schools have had on increasing the number of local students who have gone into STEM fields, but it seems to be working.

“We’re getting quite a bit of interest from the kids who come in tour the facility,” he said.

“I do think it’s working,” said adjunct Coconino Community College and Northern Arizona University professor Allen Tabor.

He said he was involved in a grant program a few years ago that put professionals in the classroom to talk to students about the STEM fields.

“Now I’m seeing those student again and they’re saying they got their interest in STEM from those visits,” he said.

The reporter can be reached at or (928)556-2253.


The business news you need

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Education/Business Reporter

Suzanne writes about education and business. She covers the local school district, charter schools and Northern Arizona University. She also writes the Sunday business features.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News

Breaking News (FlagLive!)