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Could Reese Barton be a budding engineer?

Only time will tell for the fourth-grader at Trinity Lutheran School in Fremont.

But on Wednesday morning, Reese spoke enthusiastically while participating in the school’s new STEM lab, where renovations are underway.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – a program the school has embraced in the last few years.

Fremont Area Chamber members will gather for a coffee from 9-10 a.m. Thursday to see students being innovative with the STEM curriculum.

At the same time, the Fremont Area Community Foundation (FACF), Rupert Dunklau Foundation and Pinnacle Bank will be recognized for their support of programs designed to help prepare kids at Trinity and in the community for the future.

More than 165 Trinity students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade benefit from STEM and other programs.

In addition, students from Archbishop Bergan Catholic Schools come to Trinity for the STEM Club, an afterschool engineering program.

The vision for the lab started about five years ago when Trinity chose to “go all in” with this type of education, said Brett Meyer, STEM coordinator.

Years ago, Meyer was working for the University of Nebraska College of Engineering and his children were attending Trinity. Back then, his job involved engineering outreach and he went to schools for students in grades kindergarten through 12th.

“When I would see engineering in the classroom, no matter what school, I’d see a level of engagement with students that you don’t often see,” Meyer said. “And I felt that was something that Trinity could use.”

He proposed some ideas – like aquaponics and Project Lead The Way – which began at Trinity in 2015.

With the Pinnacle Bank Aquaponics System, fish (tilapia) wastewater is used to fertilize plants. Students can watch the food-growing process from seed to plant and can harvest the product.

“It gives them a better idea of where their food comes from,” Meyer said. “They learn about sustainability and vertical farming.”

Vertical farming is that which goes up instead of being spread out.

“It helps you produce more in limited spaces,” Meyer said. “We can grow a lot in a small footprint.”

PLTW is a national engineering curriculum for students from pre-kindergarten through their senior year.

“Since then, we’ve continued to grow,” Meyer said of the programming. “We’ve added robotics to the classroom.”

Students have been involved in computer coding—telling a robot what to do.

“Kids in first, second and third grades – their future car will be a self-driving car so now they get that concept of programming a robot just as a software engineer would program that autonomous vehicle,” Meyer said.

Trinity students take part in all sorts of learning.

Greg Rathke, Trinity principal, pointed out one project for kindergartners.

They build a house out of different materials to see if it can withstand the Big Bad Wolf blowing it over.

In this case, the wolf is a mini leaf blower.

First-graders study the sun and make solar shades to keep people safe on the playground.

“We have solar beads that we put outside and if their solar bead turns purple, they haven’t provided enough shade,” Meyer said.

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Starting in fourth grade, students use 3D printers to make useable items.

Last year, eighth-graders used a 3D printer to make a plastic car part for a 1963 Impala.

Meyer and Rathke appreciate an FACF grant for $10,000 to help renovate a former computer lab and library at Trinity into a STEM lab. The Rupert Dunklau Foundation provided a $25,000 matching grant to enhance the lab.

“This is where students will come invent, create and solve problems with hands-on learning,” Meyer said.

The room’s ceilings have been left open so students can see the structures of the heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical systems and internet cabling.

“It’s kind of a living laboratory,” Meyer said.

The room also serves as a multipurpose area with space for church and school-related meetings.

Grant funds have been used for new LED lighting and innovative tables and chairs. This allows for flexible seating for collaborative pods or more traditional seating for board meetings.

The tables can be folded and put aside to make way for the robotics mat.

Funds also will be used for new flooring and a large bank of cabinets were classroom items can be stored and locked.

Melissa Diers, FACF executive director, expressed enthusiasm for the lab.

“The foundation is pleased to be supporting this project because we want to play a role in making innovative learning opportunities happen for our youth,” Diers said.

Meyer noted that not only Trinity and Bergan students benefit. He partners with the Masonic-Eastern Star Home for Children and LifeHouse.

He believes Trinity programs can help ignite a spark to help motivate students to go into a STEM field.

Diers noted something else:

“It takes a community to educate kids,” she said.

The benefits of such collaboration could be seen Wednesday morning as fourth-graders like Reese Barton and Maira Fiscus excitedly entered the STEM lab with teacher Tara Roberts.

“It’s really fun to work in pairs and figure out how to make the robot move, make it do whatever you’re programming it to do,” Reese said. “Another fun part is following the (engineering) design process. I think it’s amazing that we have the opportunity to do this.”

Last year, Reese said she got to build a robot, using a type of modeling clay like Playdoh, motors, batteries and wire.

“It really wasn’t much,” she said. “It moved around a little bit.”

But she liked seeing how to make it, trying to improve it and remaking it.

Reese said that what students learn can help them know how to interact with technology now and how to deal with problems they might have with it later.

Or help them build something they may need later.

Meyer, Diers and Rathke smiled as they watched students dive into their projects and Reese summed up what her classmates were experiencing.

“We’re all really excited about it,” she said.

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News Editor

Tammy Real-McKeighan is news editor of the Fremont Tribune. She covers news, features, religion stories and writes the weekly faith-based, Spiritual Spinach column.

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