‘Next generation of professionals’: CSU Spur’s education mission

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Collegian | Serena Bettis

The Hydro building on the Colorado State University Spur campus will be the last of the three buildings to open to the public.

Ren Wadsworth

Serena Bettis, Content Managing Editor

Editor’s Note: This is the second of three articles that look into the new CSU Spur campus. This article explains the educational opportunities available at CSU Spur.

Colorado’s ag school has not forgotten its roots, and it’s now bringing agricultural education into the urban environment.

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The driving force of Spur, the Colorado State University System’s new three-building campus in Denver, is what CSU System Chancellor Tony Frank calls “agricultural literacy.” 

“As fewer and fewer people are around farms, where does food come from?” Frank said. “How do we balance water between the agricultural needs of our population to grow food and the growing needs of an urban area?”

Sharing the answers to those questions is a good example of what Spur’s food, water and health theme is all about, but the educational mission goes much further than that. 

“What we are really trying to do at Spur is create the next generation of professionals,” Spur Director of Education Kathryn Venzor said. “Professionals in a multitude of fields. So we’ve got scientists; we’ve got agriculturalists; we’ve got veterinarians, … really trying to expose our youngest people to those professions and the professionals.”

Spur’s programming is geared toward K-12 students, but everyone involved stresses how it really is meant to be a place for everyone: someone looking for a career change, someone who never went to college but might be interested someday or even just someone who wants to learn and engage with a new topic.

The design of Spur allows visitors to get a first-hand look into real work community members are doing through educational exhibits, hands-on learning and observation windows. 

All three buildings have windows into everything: the Vida building looks into the Dumb Friends League animal hospital so visitors can watch live surgeries; the Terra building will house a commercial kitchen with a wall of windows showing food service and preparation processes; and the Hydro building will show researchers from Denver Water as they study water quality.

Venzor said Spur is about more than showing students career possibilities and is allowing them to directly interact with professionals in those fields, to understand what schooling they went through and what got them excited about their work in the first place.

Jocelyn Hittle, assistant vice chancellor for the CSU Spur campus and special projects, said Spur gives “the opportunity to engage with young people and helping them to see careers and educational pathways that they might not be considering right now,” particularly in the areas of food, water and health. 

The drive to put forth an institution focused on public, unrestricted agricultural education comes from CSU’s land-grant mission and the need to bring attention to issues facing rural Colorado.

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“There were a lot of discussions in that time period about how rural Colorado could make urban Colorado understand more of the issues they were facing,” Frank said. “I would have said in retrospect that was some of the early discussion around the urban-rural divide, (but) I don’t think we called it that back then; I don’t think we recognized what a schism that was going to be in American society.”

Frank said he believes it’s important for people from urban and rural communities to better understand each other, and one of the best ways to do that is to interact as a group. 

“I think from the rural Colorado perspective, having urban kids understand rural issues — how food is produced, how water is utilized, what sustainability looks like in a farm setting — are really important goals,” Frank said.

To do this, CSU created an immersive, accessible campus that connects students and visitors directly with the material they’re learning about. The education programs at Spur also put an emphasis on doing work in the community and not just waiting for people to come to them. 

Schools can take field trips to Spur, with CSU providing transportation-cost reimbursement to qualifying schools. If educators want to work with Spur to create extended programs for their classes, all they need to do is reach out and explore the possibilities with Spur’s education team, Venzor said.

For classes that cannot travel to Denver, the Spur team is building a virtual program to bring their educational experience to anyone across the state or beyond. 

“The reason is that CSU Spur is supposed to be — is designed to be — a place for everyone,” Venzor said. “Whether you’re able to come through our doors or if you’re able to stream with us virtually, you’ll get as close to the same experience as we can generate.”

Venzor said her team is working on technology so they will be able to go into the veterinary hospital and stream live video of a surgery, allowing students and teachers to ask the veterinarians questions directly and get the same level of exposure to the work that is possible at the physical location.

Both Venzor and Frank said they are also looking at ways to make educational virtual programs for students in rural Colorado school districts who have four-day weeks. Venzor said this is meant to fill a gap in these students’ education and reach more people who can work through issues in food, water and health.

“We are dedicated to diversifying our fields, our professional fields in all of these areas, and we can’t do that if we’re not accessing as many people as possible and making our programs accessible,” Venzor said. 

Frank said the immersive aspect of Spur’s programming is another important piece, as studies show students learn better when they’re motivated and interested and that interest comes when they can see an application of the material they’re learning.

At the ribbon cutting ceremony for Spur’s first building, Vida, on Jan. 7, Frank gave a hypothetical situation of someone who discovers a new passion through Spur, ultimately leading them to change the world, and he reiterated his point that the hope is to inspire people and show them the possibilities of what they can achieve or discover.

“We should always want people to be able to make the most of their opportunities, and I think Spur can help do that,” Frank said. “And I think if we do it enough times, odds are, you’re going to get some things that are world changing or at least part of the world-changing process.”

Reach Serena Bettis at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @serenaroseb.