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The Mobile Curiosity Lab

A mobile lab that entices young children and their families to develop skills, get ready for school, and find resources they need

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Written by

Name or Organization

St. Vrain Valley Public Schools


Northern Colorado Front Range (Broomfield, Boulder, Larimer, and Weld Counties)

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD


  • Non - Profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

Describe your submission in one clear sentence

The St. Vrain mobile curiosity lab aims to inspire and excite young children and their parents using cutting-edge virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence technologies, while simultaneously providing critical skills, resources, and connections that young families need.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

Early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make. Unfortunately, most communities don't start early enough. Research shows that achievement gaps result because some children hear millions fewer words than their peers during the critical early years. The goal of the mobile curiosity lab is to entice children and their families to play using cutting edge technologies, while educating them about language development and referring them to services. Because the lab will come to them, we'll meet families where they are - and we'll make it fun.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Channel: A new way to deliver existing products or services to customers or end users.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

St. Vrain Valley Schools serves over 32,000 children, and nearly a third of those children live in poverty. We know that we need to connect with our most vulnerable famillies sooner - but how? To address this issue, St. Vrain will create a mobile curiosity lab designed to excite and inspire young children and their families. The lab will travel to where our most vulnerable families are: our high school for teen parents, mobile home parks, grocery stores, or apartment complexes. A key element of the lab will be access to cutting-edge, technology-enabled interventions designed specifically for vulnerable children and families. The lab will be designed to allow children to play and learn while parents enhance their knowledge about early childhood development. As children play with robots, explore basic coding, and see far-away places in virtual reality, St. Vrain staff will work with families to deliver resources and programming about child development. The bus' initial technology-enabled program will be LENA Start, which features parent classes in English and Spanish that employ LENA “talk pedometer” technology to measure how much parents are talking with their children. When families leave, they should feel two things: like their youngest children have had a blast while learning something new, and that they have new resources to address whatever other barriers they face as a family.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

There is a large kindergarten readiness gap between lower- and upper-income children. This gap will not close for another 60-110 years if we continue to progress at the same rate (American Educational Research Association, 2016). In the education landscape, there are few opportunities where service providers can reach families in an environment that comes to them and is exciting, relevant, and culturally responsive. Mobile, tech-enabled environments address all of these issues.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

For several years, St. Vrain has recognized two important opportunities in the local education landscape: 1) St. Vrain has become nationally known for its STEM programming, which educates even our youngest learners about computational- and design-thinking. We began to wonder - how can we put these educational resources to work for our youngest students? What kind of technologies that leverage our expertise can benefit students before kindergarten? 2) Our low-income students and those learning English as a second language are behind their peers. How can we help them catch up, or prevent them from getting behind in the first place? The district had been talking about a mobile curiosity lab for several months, recognizing the opportunity to introduce children and families to programs and resources who, for whatever reason, didn't come into our classrooms. With the power and flexibility of a mobile facility, we recognized that we should focus on early childhood as a key element of our programming; a significant body of research demonstrates that early childhood interventions are the most cost effective way to eradicate achievement gaps. The bus' first tech-enabled early childhood tool will be implemented partnership with the LENA Foundation, which uses cutting-edge technology to support language development. More information about the LENA program is provided below. As we design the bus itself, district staff are using decades of collective expertise on learning technology and early childhood development. The design of the bus is purposely flexible; learning technologies like augmented and virtual reality are changing so quickly that nothing should be hardwired. When the bus opens, it will offer banks of virtual or augmented workstations, but those workstations can be removed when the target audience does not need them, or when the technology becomes outdated. A cache of tablets will be available for lessons with parents and learning apps for kids. The bus will include tables and chairs for adults and children to sit comfortably. Everything will be interactive, with opportunities for both technological and analog play. A key element of the bus will be its use of research-based technology to support child development. The goal of this element of the program is to introduce families to technology that is low-cost or free, research-based, and scalable. The pilot program will be LENA Start. LENA Start features parent classes in English and Spanish that employ LENA “talk pedometer” technology to measure how much parents are talking with their children, and how much children are responding. Caregivers learn to use data about their home language environment from LENA technology, along with simple strategies to increase interactive talk with their children. Family members participate in several classes to enhance their knowledge about early childhood development and the importance of talking with their children. Simultaneously, families use a simple wireless device to monitor speech patterns, which is transmitted to parents and tells them how much language their children heard and how much they engaged in conversations with their children. Research demonstrates powerful outcomes for families; children's language development grows twice as fast as comparison groups. The average participant spoke 3,400 more words to their child DAILY after participating in the program. The program is currently being implemented in pilot form at the OUR Center, a community center in Longmont (as well as at 20 other locations nationwide). Unfortunately, childcare and transportation are persistent issues. To improve access, the district will offer the LENA Start program on the bus, in areas convenient to families. The bus will be used on a weekly basis, with events scheduled throughout the community. The programming will be responsive to school and community needs; for example, if the district is launching a new early childhood initiative, specific programming will be added to the bus rotation as it moves throughout different events in the community. The district plans to partner with community organizations to offer programming: if a particular non-profit organization has priorities that overlap with the district's and serve the same target audience, their staff could hop on the bus and deliver programs in partnership with district staff. The schedule for the bus, including all available programs and staffing plans, will be finalized by late spring 2018, with a target launch date of summer 2018.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

The primary audience for this idea is children three and under and their families, primarily those living in low-income areas. The district covers 411 square miles and approximately 1/3 of students in the district (appx. 10,000 of 33,300 total students) are considered low-income. In our school district, many students receiving free or reduced lunch are also learning English. As a result, supporting parents' knowledge about language development is key these students' academic success. Families will benefit from this idea in multiple ways: 1) families will gain access to cutting-edge technologies that can support their child's development, with a focus on technologies that are research-based, low-cost or free, and easily accessible 2) families will gain access to service referrals and get connected to other community agencies; a staff member on the bus will provide resource referrals and materials for other agencies 3) families will be introduced to the exciting learning technology that children encounter in school: programmable robots (which are used with preschoolers in St. Vrain), augmented/virtual reality (where children can explore far-away places) The school district currently has a preschool program serving students ages three and up. Over 1,500 students are enrolled in the program. The district has significant experience with this age group; St. Vrain conducts all ChildFind screenings for the community and regularly works with 0-3 year olds.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

The district estimates that the bus will provide educational experiences and referral services to approximately 5,200 children and families each year (approximately 100 children and families per week), with half of those children being age three or younger. As context, the number of families impacted would be on-par with large urban resource centers like Mi Casa in Denver. We will be successful if we provide each of those parents and infants/toddlers with an exciting learning experience, connection to their local public school district, knowledge about early childhood development, technology that will support their needs, and relevant referrals to provide additional support. Output measures would include number of families served, number of resource referrals made, and number of classes offered/completed (for example, LENA Start language development classes for parents). Outcome measures would include an increase in the number of words spoken to their child by parents participating in the Lab's LENA Start program, increase in parents' knowledge of early childhood development (measured by pre-/post-intervention surveys), and increased knowledge about local public schools (measured by post-intervention surveys). Long term outcomes will include increased school readiness among participating children and increased academic achievement.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

As noted above, the district already serves 10,000 low-income children annually. This bus would bring the 0-3 population into the district's programming, helping to build trust among local families and create a foundation for ongoing family engagement throughout a child's educational experience. The bus would be brought to large school and community events, but it would also target areas where families go - grocery store parking lots, apartment complexes, or high schools supporting teen parents. The goal is to increase access among families would might not otherwise feel comfortable going to their local social services office, school or library.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (1500 characters)

This concept is an integration of several new approaches, combining cutting-edge technology (virtual reality, LENA Start technology) with unconventional delivery (mobile). The use of a movable facility ensures that we reach our families where they are, instead of asking them to come to us. While a mobile lab is not unusual in some industries, it is very unusual in the educational context. Only a handful of school districts across the country currently use a mobile laboratory and fewer still (if any) will employ tools intended to be utilized by families on their own phones or devices. The project's goal will be to maximize the use of the most effective, innovative technologies that are inherently accessible to families in their home environment. The combination of these two approaches fosters maximum impact for the families who need the most support.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

The proposed program combines two innovative approaches - mobile service delivery and technology-enabled parenting support - both of which can be scaled to reach a significant number of end users. The bus service delivery platform is inherently scalable; any school district or large social service organization could implement some version of a mobile outreach vehicle in lower-income areas. A mobile approach needs much less initial outlay (for capital) and ongoing staffing costs than a comparable brick and mortar outreach facility. The bus will feature the use of technology that is selected precisely because of its scalability. The market for technologies that support child development is nascent but has infinite possibility. Highlighting emerging technologies that can support vulnerable families, such as LENA, provides a platform for their growth. Additionally, when families are referred to technologically sophisticated tools that are low-cost and research-based, families refer others to those tools, thus multiplying the lab's impact.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

District leadership has convened a planning team to understand the technical and operational complexities of operating the mobile lab. Staff from technology, communications, priority programs (which includes preschool), communications, and fund development are all represented. The idea began with the vision of the superintendent, who fully supports the initiative and the impact it will have on the community. Initial planning for the bus has included program goal setting, audience clarification, budgeting, and operational feasibility planning (including identifying the best platform, vetting educational technologies to be included, etc.). The district will finalize the bus design over the next 6 months, with a goal of ordering the bus as soon as adequate funding can be raised. The district's fund development officer is currently identifying funding sources and developing a campaign plan. The total budget for the bus is appx. $700,000; a partner has already committed $150,000 of that total in seed funding. The district has deep partnerships with many local industry leaders and looks forward to engaging them in the planning process and soliciting their support. The goal is to raise the balance of funding necessary in time for a fall 2018 launch.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (1500 characters)

This platform is not intended as a for-profit business model. Once seed funding is secured, ongoing program funding will be minimal. Ongoing expenses would include an employee to manage and operate the bus (appx. $50,000 - $75,000 annually), plus technology refreshes every several years (appx. $50,000 per refresh). The district is committed to funding or securing these ongoing expenses indefinitely.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (1500 characters)

Design-thinking is at the core of the district's work. At the faculty level, all of the district's teachers and principals have been exposed to design-thinking and 50% have been formally trained over the past four years. As a demonstration of the district's commitment to design thinking, it recently introduced a formal Design Challenge, where teachers and principals use design thinking principles to address an issue in their school. Now in its second year, over 600 teachers have participated in this challenge to date. The winning solutions receive funding to implement their ideas. Please visit for additional information about the challenge. At the student level, the design thinking process has been embedded into district curriculum for grades PreK-12. Last year, students at the district's Innovation Center, whose instructional program is built around design-thinking principles, engaged in a design-thinking workshop with IDEO to help design the Center's new facility. The district is considering using the bus design as a design-thinking challenge for students and having them participate on the committee during the planning process. As the interior of the bus design is finalized, the committee will use a process informed by design thinking - empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing - to test the bus' design and ensure that it will meet the needs of its users.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

St. Vrain has sophisticated operational, technological, and educational expertise on its team. St. Vrain's 5,000 employees have become nationally known for the use of learning technology in classrooms, resulting in multiple national awards and recognitions. Four years ago, St. Vrain received the highly competitive Race to the Top-District award, which focused on leveraging technology to enhance student learning environments across St. Vrain. The grant transformed every classroom in the district, with students learning design-thinking beginning in pre-kindergarten and earning associates degrees in computer information sciences alongside their high school diploma. The district also created an Innovation Center, which serves as a district hub where industry partners and advanced coursework provide unparalled rigor for St. Vrain students. While leveraging technology, St. Vrain has strengthened its commitment to leveling the playing field for students from all backgrounds. The target of the district's Race to the Top - District grant was its Skyline feeder system, which serves some of the district's most vulnerable students. As a result, the district has significant experience with serving this population. As a testimony to the importance of early childhood in St. Vrain, the district sought and received a mill-levy to support preschool programming. In addition, the district contributes significant general fund resources to the preschool program. District-run preschool programs are available in every St. Vrain community, either in local elementary schools or in standalone preschool centers. The district also has a community initiative designed to build language awareness and reinforce reading success for our youngest learners, ages birth to three, called "Small Talk, Big Results." All of these commitments demonstrate the district's knowledge of and commitment to early childhood.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (500 characters)

The district would welcome additional partners, particularly universities or non-profit organizations, looking to pilot research-based, user-friendly, low-cost technology-enabled tools to support early childhood development. These tools could be launched through our bus programming at little or no-cost to the program developer (circumstance dependent).

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

Additional expertise would be welcome in the following subject areas: - innovative instructional/early childhood development technologies: there are many instructional technologies designed for tablets, smart phones, or other easily accessible devices, but the quality is highly variable. The district welcomes insight from specialists in this emerging area of expertise. - mobile lab design: the district is working with an experienced mobile vehicle designer, but welcomes the insight of others who have designed and operated similar vehicles.

Would you like mentoring support? [Relevant only for Early Submission Deadline]

  • No

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters) [Relevant only for Early Submission Deadline]

Not applicable.

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? [Relevant only for our early submission participants] (1500 characters)

Not applicable.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

For more information about St. Vrain Valley Schools, please visit To learn more about St. Vrain's focus on innovation, please see St. Vrainnovation, our annual magazine publication, at For a video about St. Vrain's focus on design thinking and science, technology, engineering, and math in PreK-12th grades, please visit

[Optional] Attachments: Please upload relevant attachments or graphics or show us how you prototyped.

Attached is an example of a mobile STEM lab. The district has reviewed numerous options for vehicle types and customization. Typically, a bus represents approximately half of the cost and customization represents the remaining half. The district's budget is $700,000 - $800,000, depending upon resources it is able to raise.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Janelle Schroy

Cool! I like this! Good luck!

Photo of Hilary null

Thank you! Your Adventure app looks really neat, too! Best of luck to you!