LAKE PARK — What was once a STEAM-fueled dream proposed by a group of Lake Park-Audubon High School teachers is now becoming a reality, thanks to generous support from local businesses and community members.
Last year, a group of teachers at the Lake Park-based school formed a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) team in order to help foster 21st century learning skills among LP-A students. This goal was set to support the increasing STEAM curriculum, which is a fundamental part of the district’s strategic plan.
After much research and data collecting, the new team decided to focus their attention on turning two old high school computer labs into places where teachers and students would have a place to collaborate and create with students in other classes, as well as other grades.
In January, teachers Katie Watland, Cole Wixo, Kyle Haberman, Stacey Minion, Annie Minske and Connor Weselk appeared before the LP-A School Board to present their plans for converting the computer labs into collaborative spaces for STEAM projects, and were given the green light to pursue grants, community partnerships and any other funding sources they could find for making the project a reality.
Along the way, this team of teachers had been receiving training from local STEAM expert Molly Bestge of Cultivate21. After a year of mentorship from Bestge, they were ready to build a STEAM Innovation Lab, more commonly referred to as a makerspace room. This group of teachers spent the last school year conducting research into STEAM education and toured a number of facilities in neighboring schools to see how STEAM labs have fostered innovation in those districts.
"We did a lot of research," Watland said. "We wanted the look and feel of this room to be different from a traditional classroom — a creative, collaborative space."
So why was this space chosen? According to Wixo, the computer labs had been underutilized for the past three or four years — essentially, since the school board implemented the policy of providing all students in grades 7-12 with their own laptop computers, to use in class and at home.
"The lab was basically being used as storage, and for overflow," he explained. "The space wasn't being used to its full potential."
Once they had the go-ahead, Wixo and some of his students cleared out the existing desks, cupboards, etc., in preparation for the conversion.
"It will have more of an industrial vibe," Wixo added. "There will be lots of metal and wood — concrete counter tops, metal and wood furniture — the kind of stuff that can handle kids creating things and making a mess."
Throughout the process, the team worked closely with LP-A High School Principal Mary Merchant and recently retired Superintendent Dale Hogie, and gave updates to the school board periodically.
Both Hogie and Merchant were instrumental in securing funds and grants for the development of these new labs, Wixo explained.
“Without the continued support of our principal and superintendent, there is no way we would have been successful in meeting our goals," Wixo said. "They seemed to be even more excited than us at times about the progress we were making and the connections and relationships we were forming with community members and local businesses.”
Two local businesses, in particular, really stepped up, providing invaluable mentorship, funding and guidance.
"We reached out to TEAM Industries in Audubon and pitched our idea to them about being able to provide this opportunity to our students," Wixo said.
In the spring, Watland filled out a grant request for $10,000, in hopes of being able to at least get one room up and running for the upcoming school year. She opened her mail upon returning to work in the middle of August — and in it was a check for $30,000 from TEAM Industries, to be used for the new LPA Innovation Lab
“It was absolutely unbelievable to receive that kind of funding and support from, and LPA is forever grateful for such a generous donation from TEAM,” Watland said.
The other local business that "came through huge," Wixo said, was BTD Manufacturing of Detroit Lakes. They had reached out to former superintendent Hogie to ask if there was anything that they could do to become more involved. Hogie passed the information along to the STEAM teacher team, and a meeting was set up.
“We sat down with three professionals from BTD last spring, not knowing what to really expect," Wixo said. "They kept asking, what could they do to get us started? We threw out the idea of having them help with the design and build of collaborative work tables for our students.
"At the time we had a few different designs of work tables that we were considering," he added — two that were more economical, and one "dream design" that would have cost roughly $7,000 if purchased commercially.
"BTD did not hesitate," Wixo said. "Not only did they agree to build four of our dream tables, but they also offered to work side by side with the construction trades class on the production of the tables and furnishings for one of the labs, creating student buy-in and a real-world manufacturing setting.”
In addition, TEAM sent technicians to get LPA’s HAAS metal lathe in working order over the summer months, and even offered to provide training for instructors who will be working with students on the machine.
More help was also received this past summer from BTD's Josh Samuelson and M State welding liaison Josh Heibel.
"These two gentlemen spent countless hours getting the metalworking equipment in the LPA shop up to industry standards," Wixo explained. "They cleaned and repaired all of the welders, helped get the CNC Plasmacam operational, and have pledged to offer continued support to students and instructors throughout the upcoming year."
In addition to the support from BTD and TEAM, the STEAM teacher team found out this past May that they were to be recipients of a Community Changemakers grant from West Central Initiative, for the purchase of additional technology equipment that will allow the STEAM team to create a more innovative learning environment.
Some of that funding has been used for the addition of two large, 90-inch interactive touch screens — one of which will be permanently mounted in the new STEAM lab, and the other to be left mobile, so it can be checked out by any teacher when the lab is in use.
The lab will also be stocked with K'Nex, mini robots and other STEAM-related materials that can be checked out by teachers, either for use in the lab or in their classrooms.