In just a few short years, the Media Center at the Beatrice High School has gone from a library to something that looks like science fiction.
There’s a big, monolithic black box trimmed with blue lighting that can print out almost anything students can imagine, a line of see-through computer terminals that can be plugged into virtual reality terminals and a cabinet full of robots, lasers, drones and circuit boards. The only thing that breaks the futuristic cyberpunk illusion is the humming tank full of river trout.
Thanks to grants from various organizations—most recently a technology grant from Monsanto for $10,000—BHS students are being prepped for the future with items geared towards science, technology, engineering, art and math. STEAM is where the jobs of the future are, and students are getting hands on experience with it.
There are still books in the media center, but in the back corner, technology is taking over. It’s a far cry from when media specialist Carol Oltman got her start at the BHS library.
“It's awesome, you can quote me on that,” Oltman said. “I think there were eight computers in here. The library was not used when I came into the library.”
The new Maker Space inside the media center is the big new attraction, said science teacher Dr. Joan Christen. Three big cabinets brimming with bleeding-edge technology that’s there for any students interested.
They’ve got 3D pens that extrude plastic that hardens as quick as it comes out of the tip and can make elaborate shapes, programmable robots that can navigate mazes or be taught simple tasks and video production tools that kids can use to make and edit their own movies.
Then there’s the fish tank. It’s a grant program from Nebraska Game and Parks called Trout in the Classroom. The tank is kept at a chilly 52 degrees and the tiny trout—that were hatched from eggs—are growing up in front of the students who take care of them.
Some students start their morning by checking in on the trout, seeing what Christen called “the bully fish” has been up to over night.
“When you look at the fish, there's one that's like four times bigger than the others,” she said. “We have caught him with four fish tails coming out of his mouth. It's really good for the kids because they can see survival of the fittest, they can see how things work in the wild. That's pretty cool.”
Just down the hall from the media center in an alcove next to Chelesy Walters’ family and consumer science classroom is this seven-foot tall contraption that looks kind of like a robotic squid with leaves coming out of it. It’s called a tower garden and the lettuce and herbs that were planted just a couple of weeks ago into its hydroponically-fed pockets are big, green and ready to eat.
Back in the media center, the virtual reality headsets offer an immersive learning experience. Lessons that are more than just from reading a book or listening to a lecture, students can climb aboard the Apollo 11 rocket to the moon, ride a roller coaster that they built or go inside the human body.
“There's a program where the kids can actually travel through a blood vessel and go to all the different parts of the body,” Christen said. “It's like they're right there.”
The big, apartment-fridge-sized 3D printer is capable of making elaborate, complicated shapes that students can program into it with CAD software. They’ve printed butterflies with movable wings, Easter eggs with chicken feet and even photographs that aren’t really visible until they’re held up to the light.
Using grants—they’ll find out if they’ve received another $10,000 grant in May—and money from the school’s technology fund, they’ve filled the media center and classrooms with around $60,000 worth of technology, Christen said.
While it’s a lot of fun, it’s really about getting kids ready for careers in engineering, programming, art and other burgeoning fields, Christen said. A survey of local businesses showed that employers are looking to hire employees with those skills, and they’re going to continue building on what they’ve got so far, she said.
“It's kind of like a snowball,” she said. “It just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”