Makerspace STEM labs aimed at helping students, “figure it out for themselves”

LEXINGTON — “Figuring it out is an employable skill,” Dawson Public Power District Communications Specialist Chelsea Gengenbach said. Now DPPD and other area businesses and organizations are going to help students learn how through the new Mid-Nebraska Makerspace Labs.

DPPD got inspiration from a STEM trailer which was operated by the Nebraska Public Power District for the past four years. NPPD takes the trailer filled with different labs across the state visiting schools and introducing students to STEM concepts.

Gengenbach said DPPD loved the concept but with only one trailer can only see so much of the state in one academic year. DPPD then pitched the idea of their own traveling STEM trailers which would be able to visit more schools throughout the area.

“The idea came to create our own trailers, but we realized this was bigger than Dawson Power,” said Gengenbach, “We needed support from the community.”

To that end, DPPD presented the idea to other businesses and organizations and partnered with Orthman Manufacturing and ESU 10.

The concept was to create three different STEM trailers, each containing 10 different units for students to learn about. These trailers will travel across the ESU 10 area, stopping at schools for two weeks at a time.

“The point is to expose students to technology they may not have access to,” Gengenbach said, “We want to introduce them to high quality jobs in Central Nebraska.”

In order to get this idea off the ground, money needed to be raised for it. Gengenbach said they were able to raise $75,000 locally for the project.

Premier partners who donated $10,000 were Orthman Manufacturing, Country Partners Cooperative, CashWa Distributing, Central Community College and Dawson Public Power District.

The City of Lexington, Sahling Endowment Fund, Pioneer Park and Land O’ Lakes Foundation were partners who donated between $3,000 and $9,999.

Supporters included Loup Valley Rural Public Power District, Howard-Greeley Rural Public Power District, Hornaday Manufacturing, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Foundation, Applegate Fund for Teachers and Bayer Agri Science. Each donated an amount around $750 to $2,999.

“If not for our local sponsors we could not have done this project,” Gengenbach said.

Orthman Manufacturing was also able to apply for a Developing Youth Talent Initiative Grant from the Department for Economic Development. This grant was open to manufacturing or IT businesses and the money raised locally was used in the grant application. Orthman was one of the three winners who received $125,000. This money will go toward the Makerspace Lab trailers.

Gengenbach said the unique aspect of these STEM trailer labs is, “the need for the students to figure it out.” She said the teachers will also become like the students as they learn about the new technology as well.

The trailers will target 7th and 8th grade students and as students finish their two weeks with the labs teachers will identify students who have done something particularly special and ask them to make a video about it. These will be presented at a capstone event at the Kearney CCC campus in May 2020.

“We wanted to tie in higher education and show which colleges support these technologies,” Gengenbach said, “We want this to be full circle, not just something the students experience for two weeks.”

There will be 10 unique labs in the trailers which are portable and modular. It provides each school with the ability to set up the labs in a space which works for them, Gengenbach said.

The different labs include one focused on 3-D printer, one is titled Makey/Pi, which Gengenbach said is, “using electrical resistance to make something happen.”

A lab centered on virtual reality uses the Oculus Rift system. Home Automation looks at automating household objects like thermostats, cameras and will teach students how to code.

A CNC lab features a woodcarving tool and will teach students about fabrication and creating their own designs. The Human Performance Electronics lab deals with a lot of electrical circuitry, Gengenbach said.

A robotics lab features a Dobart mechanical arm which is programmable and can perform a wide variety of tasks, students can program it to write or pick up items.

The Environmental Sensor Station lab will be right at home for most Nebraska students as it is heavily ag based. Students in the past in similar labs have created an app which notified the user when moisture content in the ground got to a certain point.

Advanced Manufacturing is a lab which looks at pneumatics, a branch of engineering which makes use of pressurized air or gas. Gengenbach said students will focus on how to make things move using compressed air.

The last lab is a vinyl cutter which is a 2D plotter and cutter, Gengenbach said this lab will help students who are more artistic see they still need to know the workings of computer and programing.

One of these labs will be replaced once the Makerspace trailers are built. Gengenbach said the lab which will replace it is a virtual welding program courtesy of Orthman. This lab will help students learn the basics of welding in a safe environment.

The schools which will use these trailers are located in the ESU 10 service area, which includes Dawson, Buffalo, Hall, Howard, Greeley, Valley, Garfield and parts of Sherman County. These labs will reach around 37 schools and nearly 33,000 students according to a DED press release.

DPPD and other public power districts are partnering up to help educate people as these three trailers move around the ESU 10 area.

Gengenbach said DPPD will also be working with ESU 11. The education district which covers Frontier, Gosper, Phelps, Kearney, Furnas, Harlan Counties. ESU 11 raised money privately to fund their own STEM trailer for their area. Twin Valley and Southern Public Power Districts have also partnered together to support the trailer, she said.

On July 30 there will be a teacher training session for the trailer labs at the Dawson County Opportunity Center. NPPD will instruct the teachers how the labs work. Gengebach said. The teachers will also have the opportunity to tour Orthman’s manufacturing facility in Lexington.

The trailers are expected to hit the roads in November of this year, materials and equipment for the labs and trailers have started being ordered, Gengenbach said.

“Employers are looking for problems solvers,” said Gengenbach, “It’s a huge element to employment.”

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