As I pulled up to the Colorado STEM Academy (CSA) in Westminster on a snowy afternoon in March, I was sure Siri had led me astray. The compact, blindingly white building sits on a small parking lot—its only trace of color coming from the American flag in the front lawn and the sign above the entrance. The simple exterior didn’t resemble the image in my mind of the new, cutting-edge school. But inside, it’s a whole different experience.

Colorado STEM Academy—opened by principal Anthony Matthews in 2013—seeks to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century workforce by promoting a unique academic philosophy focused on project-based and self-paced learning. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—is projected to grow by 13 percent between 2012 and 2022, compared to 11 percent for all other occupations. The National Math & Science Initiative states that 92 percent of these jobs will require a post-secondary education and additional training.

That’s where CSA comes in. Unlike many public schools, the dual elementary and middle school emphasizes a collaborative learning environment, combining sciences with arts to teach kids practical, everyday skills they can take to high school, college, and beyond. With small class sizes—elementary classes have about 26 students, and middle school around 23—and access to technology (each classroom has 15 Chromebooks and iPads for students to use), the Academy is part of a growing number of STEM schools in Colorado and across the nation.

Middle school literacy teacher John Thanos says classroom projects are unique in that STEM educators seek to make them timely, relevant to current events or the community, and built for a real and meaningful audience. For example, Thanos’ latest project, completed at the end of March, asked students to create data-driven “Top 10” lists, reminiscent of those like the U.S. News & World Report’s annual best places to live, which recently ranked Denver at number one.

“We’re trying to get [the students] to recognize and take pride in [the Denver] community, because it’s a destination for so many,” Thanos says. “All the middle school teachers are transplants who chose to come here after looking at lists like these.”

To build their lists, students were required to use a variety of criteria—think demographics, median income, and climate—to conduct in-depth research on their chosen topic, utilizing technical skills like data-driven analysis and forecasting. The students then presented their lists to peers, parents, and teachers on March 25, using creative skills like video editing, writing, and public speaking. Teachers chose the winning list on the top 10 real-life movie sets you can visit, created by 7th grader Julie Knief, based on quality and feedback on her presentation. Knief is working at an 8th grade level and getting ready for high school in three of her four subject areas. She has been a CSA student since the school opened and participates in the journalism club, orchestra, and student council.

Imaginative projects like these are a focus of CSA’s curriculum. Teachers set the audience, timeframe, and specific objectives for all classroom projects, but students still have a significant amount of choice in how they complete them. According to Thanos, this places an emphasis on “collaboration and real-world skills” that students will have to exercise in the workforce, including a self-starting attitude, up-to-date technological literacy, and proficiency in goal setting.

“With a younger population moving to this area and working in STEM field jobs, they’ll be looking for interns and job applicants trained with 21st century skills like those,” says Thanos.

CSA students progress on a competency-based system (CBS), which means once they reach grade-level proficiency in core areas—based on District 50’s CBS model—they can continue on to the next grade, regardless of where they are in the school year. Assistant principal Brenda Martin says that eighth grade students who reach high school proficiency mid-year will be taught from a “level-nine” curriculum until they go to high school.

The Academy also has longer classroom hours—starting at 8:25 a.m. and ending at 3:45 p.m.—and an extended school year, which begins one week before and ends one week after other Westminster public schools. “The extended school year gives those kids more opportunity to not only work on their projects, but get to a proficiency where they can continue on comfortably,” says Thanos.

The students who presented their Top 10 list projects in late March don’t color inside the lines, because they were never taught to do so. These students, guided by their own curiosity and their teachers’ oversight, tackle projects by becoming experts, drawing conclusions, challenging those conclusions, seeking the input of their peers, and putting it all together using technology—just like any 21st century employee would.