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Construction at STEM Academy becomes a hands-on engineering assignment

HIGHLANDS RANCH – Usually when construction happens at a school, workers do their best to lock out students, to ensure their safety. The contractor working on the expansion of the STEM School and Academy had a different take, instead encouraging the kids on to the site and incorporating them in the project.

“Barry Himmelman, the owner of Himmelman Construction, came up with the idea of letting the kids address some of the constructability issues we've found on the job so far,” explained Scott Edwards, a project manager with Himmelman Construction.

When the construction crew lowered the floor of parts of the school by more than two and a half feet, it exposed caissons, which had been buried in dirt for about 20 years.

“They don't look very nice,” Project Superintendent Eric Kriebel said with a laugh. “We have to come up with some sort of functional option to disguise these.”

The construction crew presented the students with three problems and asked the students of the project-based Science, Technology, Engineering and Math school to put their learning to the test.

“[The pole and caisson is] in the middle of the classroom. It's a unique situation. I mean you have a classroom that will be used for physical fitness area, so you need to think safety. You need to think, ‘what is it used for?’ Then you need to think, you want some open area here to run around,” Kriebel said.

The kids were up for the task, volunteering for the extracurricular project and immediately getting to work creating 3D models of the space and brainstorming potential solutions.

The students then collaborated with the construction workers to determine if their ideas were feasible.

“They're exceptionally bright and they're coming up with some great ideas,” Kriebel said.

The kids have come up with all kinds of concepts, including hiding away the poles with trophy cases, teacher’s desks and even utilizing it for a pull-up bar. The best part is that, through this collaboration, the student-suggested solutions are actually being implemented.

“We just pointed out that they could move the door, and they did. They did that,” said ninth-grade student Alicia Lamb excitedly.

It is authentic experiences like this, everyday, that have these kids excited about their futures.

“This is what we’re going to be doing when we grow up,” Lamb said.

“It gives them the hands on, real world experience so they can get a taste of, 'wow I got to look at construction and see how the nuts and bolts are put together and see how the superintendent manages the 8 to 10 people on site. How all of that and my idea can really come up to a final design. [They can say,] ‘I really enjoy that. I think I'm going to school for architecture, or engineering, or construction management,” Edwards said. “It's very exciting and very quick paced and really gives these kids a chance to have that authentic learning, before they make their final choices in school.”

“Authentic learning opportunities are problems you would task engineers, world class scientists. They're true problems that you would give an expert,” explained Dr. Penny Eucker, the executive director of STEM School and Academy. “Our students, we feel, are experts and so we task them with really hard questions.”

She believes that projects like this will prepare students for the colleges or careers of their choice, and the construction workers agree.

“As bright as these kids are and as technology is advancing in construction, these kids could be the future mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and structural engineers. They can be an architect. They could even be a future project superintendent. I think this is very beneficial for them.”

The STEM School and Academy believes there is no reason to make students wait.

“This school is about learning by doing. It's about getting your hands dirty and really learning by creating something,” a STEM student said.

Whether it is working on robotics or solving construction problems, the teens are diving into assignments that they might not have gotten to do until college or their first job.

“What they can do is so far beyond our imagination,” Eucker added. “You might as well open the gates and let them go.”

Learn more about the STEM School and Academy at

February 18, 2014 | By rmbarber | Category:

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