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Middle schoolers return in person to new STEM lab

a middle schooler looks at a 3d printer with her teacher
“Cool” was the word when students at Lakewood Middle School returned to in-person teaching this month and also about the school’s new STEM Lab.

Children attend classes at Lakewood Middle School either Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday. On their first in-person day each week, they learn in extended sessions of first, second and third period classes. Followed the next day by instruction in their fourth, fifth and sixth periods.

Wednesdays include whole class support in the morning and online learning for the rest of the day. Teachers also have online office hours so a student can ask questions and obtain extra help on assignments. High school students will follow the same schedule when classes resume at Lakewood High School on March 29.

It is the first time students have the opportunity to learn inside the STEM Lab. The new 3000-plus square foot area focuses on science, technology, engineering and math – aka STEM. It was set to open last spring but then COVID-19 forced schools to close.

“It’s pretty cool. I have never been in a class like this before” gushed 6th grader Jakobi Arnett during Design Tech class. Her classmate Kinsey Lichty was impressed with the 3D printer. “3D printing is cool. I’ve seen one used at my friend's house, but this is my first time using one,” Lichty commented.

Even without a physical student presence inside the new lab, teachers Lane Hoback and Ron Detrick have been making use of the space in their virtual lessons. “There is an intricate 4-sided puzzle box in my office as a result of those lessons,” said LMS principal Amanda Coté. Students worked as a group using the online program Tinkercad to design a puzzle for each of the box’s sides. Teachers did the physical work to build the box based on the students’ design and using the many tools available in the lab’s common area.

Watching their online project come together really ramped up the students’ enthusiasm in the lab, Coté said. “They are on the edge of their seats to get started in person in this new space,” she smiled.

Laser cutters, 3-D printers and CNC (computer numeric cutting) machines highlight the new state of the art technology available. Band saws, drill presses and other standard shop tools line up along the walls honoring the long history of hands-on vocational learning. The space includes individual rooms for specialized equipment like the laser cutter, a large common area with butcher block worktables and two standard sized classrooms with windows that open onto the common area to ensure ample student supervision.

“It is a perfect marriage of modern and old school technology,” said Dale Leach, Executive Director of Operations and Learning Support Services for Lakewood Schools and the lead on the lab construction project.

The butcher block tables are on wheels allowing each to be quickly rolled out of the way to make space for robotics explained Hoback. In addition to teaching these classes at the middle school, he has been the coach of the high school’s robotics team “Full Metal Robotics” for several years.

Hoback said he has seen many of his middle school students get a taste of robotics in his classes then go on to participate in the high school team’s robotics competitions. “I can help to direct their work but then I get out of their way. These are very sharp kids,” he said. Hoback will retire in June after 35+ years of teaching and plans to continue his interest in robotics closer to his family.

Projects like the box in the principal’s office begin with students working collaboratively to solve a question, Detrick said. It is followed by generating ideas, in particular thinking spatially. A prototype is constructed then tested. Results of those tests prompt any adaptations of the design. Modifications are then also tested until a final and acceptable product is achieved, he summed up.

Robotics students were learning how to code by controlling virtual robots using the online program Robotify. Hoback said they are eager to get their hands on the Lego Mindstorms kits available in the STEM Lab to put into practice what they have virtually learned.

Cost of the entire project — design, construction and state of the art equipment — was about $844,000. It was financed by dollars generated through state construction assistance (state match) from building the new Lakewood High School that opened in 2017. Leach recalled that at the time Lakewood school leaders knew middle schoolers needed more hands-on learning focused on 21st Century skills. It was determined a STEM Lab addition to the middle school campus would best meet that need.

Many of the vocational classes inside the Lab are often supported by the local Educational Programs and Operations Levy. Voters did not replace the levy before it expired in 2020. Dollars to support this year’s classes are coming from Lakewood schools’ fund balance (savings account), but funds in that savings account will not last for much longer.

The most logical and cost-effective lab location on the middle school campus was the area used by district maintenance and operations staff, Leach explained. It had once been the wood shop in the former Lakewood High. Leach and his staff moved to one of three garage bays at the Transportation Department. This has impacted the work of Transportation staff and plans are underway to allow all three bays to return to vehicle service.

How was the STEM Lab funded?

With the savings and state assistance that came with building a new Lakewood High School, approximately $10 million was carried forward to take on other projects. The board publicly deliberated on these priorities in the summer of 2019. The additional projects that the board approved and initiated since that time were: construction of the STEM lab at Lakewood Middle School, replacing the Cougar Creek Elementary School roof, and expanding the Transportation building to include the Facilities Department.

Superintendent Scott Peacock explains more in this video: