Building In Bloom: What Douglas High School’s New STEM Center Means For Our Children

by Scott Neuffer


As a journalist, it’s strange to report on something that’s going to happen, to do this for years, build up your readers’ expectations, and then one day realize, BAM! It’s happening. It’s a reality. The story changes from what will be to what is.

This is the story of the new STEM center at Douglas High. We’ve all seen it by now. The bold new masonry rising above Highway 88. I’ve often referred to this new set of classrooms as “state-of-the-art” because that’s how project designers and district officials have described it. Hyphenated modifiers are easy. Come on, it’s “state-of-the-art,” “cutting-edge,” “game-changing.” What’s harder is getting into specifics. What does this now-very-real building mean for our kids? What exactly is going to happen come fall when freshmen return to the high school and students of all grade-levels find themselves in this new STEM center?

I’m picturing the futuristic rock utopia of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” or maybe a scene from “The Matrix.”

The truth, however, is shaping up to be much more practical.

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What the Heck is STEM?

Workers install windows on the new STEM building at Douglas High School.
Workers install windows on the new STEM building at Douglas High School.

STEM, remember, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. These subjects are the new gold rush in education — if, by “gold,” we mean the precious ability of American students to compete in a global economy that’s never been more interlinked or more competitive — to hold their own against high-testing students from China, Japan, India, Europe and other powerhouse economies — if, by “rush,” we mean a huge intense focus on these core subjects and a sluice of new initiatives, such as Project Lead the Way and Rights Skills Now, designed to raise proficiency and career training.

Did I say “sluice?” Sorry, I was caught up in the gold rush analogy. I meant “slew:” a slew of initiatives designed to make our kids not just better at science, technology, engineering and math, but to put them at the cutting edge, the cusp, at the dynamic intersection of these subjects, where learning and comprehension give way to modern-day, real-world applications.

Have you heard about Common Core? Well, this article is not about Common Core or any kind of political controversy Common Core has caused. Suffice it to say that educational standards across the country and in the State of the Nevada are getting tougher, more rigorous. Kids are expected to use their heads more. Because we live in a world of constantly changing technology — drones, smartphones, 3D printing, time machines (okay, not time machines) — a sense of urgency has buoyed STEM to the forefront of educational reforms.

Think of it this way: Every politician who runs for President promises the citizenry that American ingenuity and enterprise will continue to lead the world economy in the 21st Century.

This promise, however, means very little if education can’t keep pace with new industry. Whenever you hear an employer say they can’t find qualified workers, that a local workforce lacks the requisite skillset for current job openings, it represents a disconnect between industry and education, a breakdown between rhetoric and reality.

To shed light on the emerging job market, Douglas County School District Superintendent Lisa Noonan pointed to a recent report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The 15 most valuable majors in the current marketplace were ranked by median starting pay, median mid-career pay, growth in salary and wealth of job opportunities,” Noonan said. “The areas of engineering and math reigned supreme on this list. No. 1 was biomedical engineering. Other engineering concentrations comprised one third of the valuable majors: software engineering, environmental engineering, civil engineering, and the highest paycheck on the list—petroleum engineering at a median salary of $155,000.”

Wow. STEM, jobs, six figures. Simple enough. Of course, nothing is simple these days. How can we make the connection between STEM and the job market in Northern Nevada?

Noonan used the example of electric-car company Tesla Motors, which is presently building a massive factory east of Sparks. Designed to produce lithium-ion batteries for Tesla’s industry-changing cars, the new 10-million-square-foot facility will generate thousands of local jobs in the near future. But these won’t be run-of-the-mill manufacturing jobs.

“Being able to solve real-world problems,” Noonan said, “will be more of a requirement in the workforce than the ability to do rote work as other jobs of the past allowed.”

In other words, Douglas High students need to be prepared for the future.


How to Build a STEM Center

Way back in 2008, Douglas County voters passed a continuation bond that retained a 10-cent property tax rate for the school district’s debt service. This allowed the district to issue bonds for capital improvement projects. The vast makeover of Gardnerville Elementary School and the new set of classrooms at Pinon Hills are prime examples of how the funds have been used. But the cherry on top, the icing on the cake, the king of the hill, is the Douglas High remodel. Plans were drafted and redrafted. Millions were spent. Ninth-graders at Pau-Wa-Lu and Carson Valley Middle School were beckoned to reclaim their rightful place in the halls of Douglas High. More than 450 ninth-graders will be joining grades 10-12 in a thoroughly renovated high school this fall.

“When staff began work on designing a new master plan for Douglas High School in 2011,” Noonan recounted, “leadership could see the need for STEM opportunities for K-12 students on the horizon. Working with local architects (H+K in Reno), the design-planning team collected input from teachers, administrators and the community to design a new STEM center.”

Now the fruit of those efforts, the two-story, 25,000-square-foot, $7-million STEM center, stands in front of the old high school entrance like some brand new university building. To me, it looks like a structure you’d find at some prestigious engineering college. It’s Douglas County’s version of MIT or Caltech.

Noonan said the building was designed to promote “cross-curricular collaborations,” meaning no one teacher or core subject will monopolize the new facility. The classrooms were designed to be fully equipped and interactive, equally suitable for science lab work, math lessons and technology projects… I envision Bunsen burners and Bluetooth, calculus and CAD programs, all integrated in a rousing learning environment.

Perhaps no better example of this interactivity, dare I say synergy, is the center’s “flex lab.”

“The flex lab is an oversized classroom that opens out to a patio area for teachers to work with one or more classes on special projects,” Noonan explained. “Rather than being assigned to a specific teacher, all teachers can sign up to bring their students to the flex room when they’re testing new inventions or bringing concepts to life in practice.”

Nor will the center be restricted to high school students.

“There is an expectation that the STEM center will serve more than our high school students over time,” Noonan said. “There would be the opportunity for younger students (middle school or even elementary age) to come to summer programs that expose them to computer science and STEM projects—leading to greater confidence and interest in future courses.

“There may also be opportunities for adults in the community to have access in the summers, evenings or weekends for special training in the area of workforce development or career retraining.”

Awesome news for adults. I hope someone at the new center can help me build a time machine.


Brave New Curriculum


A new facility wouldn’t mean much for STEM education without commensurate development of STEM curriculum. I asked Noonan how STEM courses and materials would be different than traditional science and math courses.

No one is proposing to do away with foundational subjects like chemistry or algebra. Every student in Douglas County schools still has to meet basic requirements in science and math. These traditional courses, though, will be enhanced with “hands-on projects and problem-solving challenges,” Noonan said.

There will be greater focus on engineering.

“My favorite definition of engineering: ‘Engineering is what you do when you use math and science to solve a real problem,’” Noonan said.

Elective STEM courses will be field-specific and career-oriented. Remember Project Lead the Way, that STEM initiative I mentioned earlier? Well, PLTW helps high schools develop and administer what’s called “a career and tech ed pathway,” said Noonan.

The program first began at Douglas High in 2013 with one elective course, which was taught by veteran Douglas tech teacher Jim Abbott. The course was Introduction to Principles of Engineering.

Noonan said the first class produced 20 “budding engineers blazing the trail for us.”

“This year, the number has grown to over 150 students taking PLTW courses from Mr. Abbott and two other DHS teachers, Christina Brown and Lori Korzeniewski. New strands of engineering for first- and second-year students are available, and Mrs. K has introduced the biomedical strand for her students.”

That’s right, some Douglas High students are already studying biomedical engineering. Next year, with the STEM center up and running, DHS staff hopes to add CIM, or computer integrated manufacturing, to the class catalog as well.

And this new STEM curriculum isn’t only for upperclassmen. Noonan said the district is currently developing a one-semester course for all incoming freshmen; the course will focus on digital literacy and the importance of technology in education.

“A six-member team is being formed this spring to work on new projects and lesson units for high school kids to try out in the 2015-16 school year,” she said. “Teachers on the STEM team come from subject specialty areas of math, science and technology, but will work together as cross-curricular collaborators to design the work. They will have support through two professional development trainers with strong backgrounds in teaching with technology.”

The district is also getting help from the state.

“Another support system for the teacher leaders has been organized by Gov. Sandoval,” Noonan said. “The governor’s STEM Advisory Council has been working for over a year to organize guidance for Nevada schools.”


Roots of a STEM Future

Despite all my bloviating, I still haven’t offered a real concrete example of “hands-on” instruction geared toward engineering.

Here’s a good example that involves a catapult. You may be wondering how a medieval contraption like a catapult could be considered “cutting-edge.” But what if I told you STEM students at Douglas High built their own catapults under the tutelage of some of the world’s best engineers?

Carson Valley is unique in that it is a rural community known for ranching and spectacular view sheds but is also home to world-class tech and manufacturing companies like GE Energy, Starbucks, North Sails, ANC Precision, AVK, etc.

GE, in particular, has been a strong proponent of STEM education in Douglas County. Engineers at the firm have volunteered their time and efforts not only to help raise money for STEM initiatives, but to mentor students.

Last spring, GE engineers hosted a competition in the Douglas High commons in honor of Engineering Week. According to Eric Butterfield, engineering leader for GE Bently Nevada’s product line, students were tasked with building a device that could launch a ping pong ball 20 feet into a five-gallon bucket.

There were five teams consisting of students and GE mentors. Students got $25 to spend at Home Depot for materials.

“We thought this was a great way to engage with local students with technology and provide real, hands-on mentorship,” Butterfield said in a press release. “All of the teams implemented versions of the classical catapult with many different methods used to generate the potential energy in the throwing arm. But it was the winning team that demonstrated the most innovation by using a twisted rope to give the torsional force for the launcher.”

Boom. You heard it here: twisted rope, torsional force. Our kids are freaking geniuses. A similar competition is slated for later this spring.

It’s not just GE that’s pushing for STEM education in Douglas County. Business organizations have been contributing in major ways. Project Lead the Way, for example, really got going in 2013 after Douglas County’s Economic Vitality Program and the Northern Nevada Development Authority helped pay for two high school teachers to obtain first-level PLTW training.

“In order for teachers to be the instructors for PLTW, they must attend special university training in the summer months and earn the required endorsement,” Noonan explained.

The district also garnered a $430,000 grant from the Bingham Charitable Fund, administered by the Community Foundation of Western Nevada, that will be used to develop new STEM lessons and projects at both Douglas and Whittell high schools.

And we can’t forget the Nevada System of Higher Education. WNC and UNR’s colleges of education and engineering have provided support in aligning curriculum to college standards. The former, WNC, is working with local manufactures to create internships and train students who want to go directly into the workforce with a field endorsement, such as in machine tooling or precision welding. UNR is helping to ensure students have the best foundation possible for higher education in STEM fields.

A “career ladder” is how Noonan once characterized the new STEM center. Students can climb as high as they want into college and/or the workforce. As long as all stakeholders continue to collaborate, the ladder will run parallel with industry.

“Many of the jobs that will exist in 2030 are for problems or products that don’t exist in today’s world,” Noonan said.

This ladder metaphor is a good place to end. The entire community is now supporting this ladder. Every taxpayer in Douglas County is holding up part of it. This ladder is not about inventing a time machine or any other mind-blowing technology, as disappointing as that sounds. It’s about the future of our kids and the skills they’ll need in a changing marketplace. I guess it is rather simple. This ladder, this myriad-rooted STEM now aimed at the sky, represents a real chance for our kids to succeed in the world.



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