Geek Out on One High School’s Extensive STEM Lab

Charlottesville High School’s new STEM lab is a unique space with NEC video walls, Lenovo all-in-one workstations, 3D printers and more.

Chrissy Winske
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Get more students interested in STEM. That’s been the mantra from Washington and from technology leaders across the country.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math make up the four components of STEM teaching and learning. The Charlottesville, Va., have taken this mission to heart with the addition of two STEM learning labs located at the middle and high school.

“One of our students was quoted as saying, football players have a football field and sports players have sports fields, and our musicians have the orchestra room, but where’s the place for the geeks?” says Jeff Faust, director of technology at Charlottesville City schools.

The student was joking, but the comment kicked off a very real conversation within the district. School leaders knew there was an interest in STEM subjects, particularly because of the growth of the BACON club.

The word is an acronym for “Best All Around Club of Nerds,” — that’s a name the club members chose themselves. In recent years the club has grown from it’s original four or five members to about 100 active members.

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“We knew with that club and that momentum that we had students who really saw a need for expressing themselves through technology and expressing themselves through creation, programming, robotics and different engineering concepts,” says Faust. “We saw a need to create a space to foster that.”

The district’s first STEM lab was built in its middle school. The second and newest addition is the Sigma Lab located at Charlottesville High School. It’s design is based on an actual advanced manufacturing facility south of Richmond, Virginia.

After touring the plant, school leaders decided to build something similar on a smaller scale that would be comparable to what they had seen. Construction on the Sigma Lab was completed over the summer.

Inside the Sigma Lab

“We did a demolition down to the steel and concrete,” Faust says.

When students returned to school in August they had a brand new space where they could explore concepts of science, engineering, robotics and manufacturing. The Sigma Lab is designed to mimic the workflow of a real commercial manufacturing operation.

It’s made up of several different areas. The first is a design lab with small group spaces meant for collaboration. These areas have a sliding glass door to create an almost soundproof space. They also have writable walls and an interactive LCD display.

Next, students take their ideas to a room with Lenovo all-in-one workstations where they can login and access different CAD and design programs. These programs are used to create a digital representation of the students’ ideas.

The room also features two video walls made up of NEC 46-inch X464UNV displays. These video walls are used to share student work as well as other as other types of educational content related to the class at hand.

When it came to choosing displays for the Sigma Lab, Faust had two basic criteria. He wanted thin bezels and the lowest power consumption possible.

“Having thin bezels that are nearly non-existent was important. We wanted it to feel like one giant video wall and not two LCD’s butted together and then four LCD’s butted together,” Faust says.

The school also has its own solar plant so in the spirit of keeping with its green initiatives, Faust wanted to make sure the displays wouldn’t run contrary. He determined that using the NEC displays, the entire video wall would only consume the equivalent of two 100 watt incandescent light bulbs, which certainly met the criteria.

Related: NEC Integrates with Google Chromebox for Education

After using the workstations, students can go one of two routes. If they’re creating a physical object, the students will head to the 3D printing lab where they will find two MakerBot 3D printers as well as a Stratasys UPrint 3D printer. If the students are creating a software program then they would program arduinos while their classmates work on prototype parts.

The final step in this manufacturing process is a shop with things like a table top saw, drills, a laser cutter and a lathe. If the students’ projects involves software or robotics then they might head over to the mechatronics lab instead. There they can add electrical components to their design to create things like levers, a motor, etc,.

The Sigma lab was built entirely with community funds. The city had dogeared money for STEM initiatives from its local capital improvement fund. This may be the first year students have had access to the Sigma lab, but the school is already reaping the benefits.

“Our zero robotics team just took second in the world so that was an immediate return we hadn’t necessarily expected,” Faust says. This is the highest the team has ever ranked.

The school is also seeing an interest in the Sigma Lab from disciplines outside of the sciences. An Anthropology class used the lab’s 3D printers to create replicas of skulls for early humanoid beings. The student were able to touch, hold and observe the skulls, driving home their differences. Faust expects other subject areas to begin using the lab to a greater extent as well.

When asked if he would change anything, Faust says, “It sounds cliche and cheesy, but I have not heard anything to the effect of we should have done this differently. The design is working out really well and the technology that’s in the space is working out really well.”

This article was originally published on CI sister site K-12 TechDecisions.