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Charlottesville schools’ labs to get high-tech makeover

Following a $3 million allocation by Charlottesville City Council to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, city students could be learning and designing in state-of-the-art science labs as early as February 2014.

Construction of the new facilities at Buford Middle School and Charlottesville High School, which are being designed to incorporate advanced manufacturing concepts into existing science curriculum, is slated to begin in June and August respectively.

“City Council is very supportive of these improvements, and I think we’ve put our money where our mouth is,” Mayor Satyendra Huja said.  “We’re looking forward to seeing these improvements and eventually good education for the children.”

Construction will occur in four phases and City Council heard updates on the status of the projects Monday.

The bulk of the Charlottesville High School project, which will cost approximately $1 million and is planned to be completed by the start of next school year or shortly thereafter, is the renovation of the existing media center into a two-story advanced manufacturing lab.

Conceptual plans include collaborative space, a computer lab, work rooms, a three-dimensional printing lab and a mechatronics, or robotics, lab on the ground floor.  The second story will house a classroom for approximately 30 students.

Project manager Tim Breitenbach said that the renovation’s design will help keep the construction within budget.

“The only thing that’s going to need columns and structural steel will be [the] classroom,” Breitenbach said.  “We’re also going to be able to use the existing HVAC system.”

As for the lab’s contents, Breitenbach plans to start modestly to allow for new technologies to unfold.

“We’re designing for six printers…but we’ll probably start off with maybe just two,” Breitenbach said.  “This technology is changing so rapidly that it will work well for us to phase in additional printers because it will have changed already by the time we complete this facility.”

The second phase of STEM construction at CHS will include a renovation of the school’s existing science classrooms, including the integration of three-dimensional printing capabilities into those rooms.

Three-dimensional printing is at the heart of a push to teach students STEM concepts through rapid manufacturing in order to prepare them for high-tech jobs in the future.

Currently, Buford students and teachers are working with the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and School of Engineering to integrate advanced manufacturing into the science curriculum.

City Councilor Dede Smith wondered how teachers would align rapid manufacturing with Virginia’s Standards of Learning, but associate superintendent Gertrude Ivory said these creative, hands-on opportunities will benefit students come SOL test time.

“Dr. Atkins has already given the Buford project the go ahead to not worry about the SOLs as much as worry about…what kind of good teaching and learning we can get out of this,” Ivory said.  “And we’ve already seen the payoff in the retention of the students, just by repeating some of the activities for the visitors they’ve had, so I think we’re going to see the benefit in enhanced SOL scores for all students.”

The construction at Buford Middle School will include the renovation of four existing science classrooms, including the surrounding hallways and lobby. 

“The project will take the duration of the summer, and we hope that the children will be in the new renovated classrooms [by] the first of school or shortly thereafter,” VMDO Architects director of sustainable design and Buford project lead Steve Davis said.

Other features will include storage and prep areas in each room, as well as movable lab stations, demo tables and Smart Boards, and space for design and manufacturing equipment, such as three-dimensional printers.

The second phase of construction at Buford will be the renovation of the library’s atrium into an additional science classroom that will provide opportunities for students to earn career and technology high school credits both during the school day and after school hours.

“It’s gratifying to see this kind of innovation and change in the schools,” Councilor Kathleen M. Galvin said.  “It seems just like yesterday that we were visiting the UVa labs and we’re going to be seeing it at CHS next February.  That’s extremely exciting.”