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Sarah Kwapnioski, a senior at Columbus High School

Columbus High School STEM Academy Collaborates to Benefit Students and Community

Raising the Bar | Youth Pathways to Success | November 2017

Peter Kiewit Foundation awarded Columbus Public Schools Foundation $100,000 to fund new equipment, materials and furniture for the new Columbus High School’s STEM Academy.  The new High School opened earlier this spring, highlighting the STEM Academy as a unique outstanding feature.

“Our STEM Academy was developed around our local community needs,” says Troy Loeffelholz, Columbus Public Schools superintendent.  Area businesses and manufacturers historically struggle with skilled labor shortages to fill essential workplace and industry positions. “We have a STEM advisory committee of 35 people from different walks of life—businesses, manufacturers etc.—who helped us design our facility and our program to meet the needs of our students and the community of Columbus.”

State-of-the-art equipment and expanded curriculum offerings brought the program up to standards that enable more certification and dual credit opportunities for students pursuing STEM career pathways. “What we wanted to do is give our kids an authentic experience so that what we are teaching them in the classroom is exactly what they’ll be doing in the workforce as adults,” Loeffelholz says.

In the fourth quarter of last year’s academic school year (the first quarter in the new building), 41 Columbus High School students earned Snap-On digital multi-meter certification through the National Coalition of Certification Centers. “Snap-on expected us to only get 10 to 12 students to pass the certification, but we got 41 students to pass,” says Heidi Elliott, STEM career coordinator.  “What that tells me is that not only are our students truly buying into our STEM Academy and the pieces of certification but so are our instructors.” Additional certifications will be offered in Torque, Precision Measurement, and Solus Edge Scanning this school year.

The STEM Academy was designed and continues to grow with input and interaction from Columbus area businesses and industry partners such as Becton Dickinson & Company, Cargill, Behlen, Blazer Manufacturing Corp among others. Collaboration creates opportunities for business and industry representatives to interact with students both in the classroom and on the job through seminars, career and job fairs, field trips, internships, mentoring and job shadowing.

“I do think that as our STEM Academy is here for years to come, I predict that our students are going to be able to truly launch straight into a career, straight into a two-year program or into a four-year program—whatever it is that is their path,” Elliott says. “I also think we will be bringing a lot of awareness to students who would’ve traditionally thought that they couldn’t go into one of those options that they truly can.”

“One of the things we want to create for our students is hope,” says Loeffelholz. “What Kiewit and our other partner groups have done is allow us to create an atmosphere of hope for our kids. We want all of our students to walk away from their high school experience going forward to a two-year or a four-year school or into the workforce with certifications to earn as much money as they can to raise their families and live a life where they can be productive and be able to do more things.”

Columbus High School STEM Academy Student Will Enter College Ahead of Her Peers

Sarah Kwapnioski, a senior at Columbus High School, has taken Mechatronics and Robotics courses throughout her four years of high school as well as courses in other STEM fields of study.  This year, she’s benefitting from the new STEM Academy in the new building.  “With all of this new equipment we have so many more learning opportunities,” Kwapnioski says.  “And it’s amazing that all of these people have come together to donate money to help students learn more.  It has really helped.”

Kwapnioski has followed the Mechatronics and Robotics pathway all four years and will have taken all of the courses offered in that area of study by graduation. “This year I am able to take one of the new classes offered which is Advanced Manufacturing Design,” Kwapnioski says. It’s a year-long course for instructing students on many facets of manufacturing design technology and how to use equipment such as Swansea Lathes and Swansea Mills. Previously, there was only one lathe available.

“At the new school we have six Swansea Lathes and six Swansea Mills,” Kwapnioski explains. “That’s why the class is new. It’s all about learning to use the equipment but if you only have one piece of the equipment, you can’t really teach a whole class of like 18 people.” With six lathes and six mills, there is ample opportunity and space for all of the students to work on their projects and gain experience working with the equipment.

“In my mechatronics class we have equipment called mech boards to put all of our pieces together when we are working in class,” Kwapnioski says.  At the old school, students had to double up and share just four mech boards.  With the expanded STEM Academy that number jumped to nine.  “With more mech boards you can spread out more and you don’t have to be so congested when you’re building your circuit,” she adds.

Kwapnioski plans to major in Electrical Engineering and is deciding between University of Nebraska at Omaha, Colorado School of Mines, and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.  “When I visited these colleges, I knew a lot of the equipment already,” she says.  “It puts a smile on my face to simply know that my freshman year in college I will be ahead of everyone else because I’ve been using this equipment since I was a freshman in high school,” she says.  She attributes that advantage to the opportunities afforded her through the STEM Academy at Columbus High School.

Find out more at Columbus High School STEM Academy