Imagination + Technology = S.T.E.A.M. Lab

Carrie Stambaugh, Managing Editor

    Imagination and technology are a powerful combination that when brought together can create unimaginably fantastic results – Russell Primary School's (RPS) new S.T.E.A.M. Lab is a vivid example of what can happen.
   S.T.E.A.M. stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Each is a key discipline in today’s school curriculum because of their respective roles in promoting creative, critical and analytical thinking, problem solving and collaboration.
    The S.T.E.A.M. classroom, which serves all 460 primary students in grades kindergarten through second grade, is located just off the library. Crossing the threshold though is a journey to a different world.
    Overhead is a blue sky with fluffy white clouds, the rays of a brightly colored sun shine, and spin, on a wall, while a three-dimensional landscape of a pastoral scene unfolds into a soaring cityscape complete with a brightly colored castle. The centerpieces of the lab - 26 gleaming new Apple iMac computers, a trio of robots, a pair of high-tech gaming consoles and a mounted 3D projector – are almost concealed, they fit so seamlessly into the classroom’s fanciful scenery.
    The room is the creation of Russell’s new S.T.E.A.M. Lab teacher Amanda Cole and her husband Russ Cole, a district network administrator. Russell schools hired Amanda over the summer and immediately the couple began working to transform her new classroom into a one-of-a-kind destination for learning.
    Long inspired by artist and Disney animator Mary Blair, Amanda believed mimicking her bright, whimsical style would be a perfect fit for the lab. Blair is best known for creating Disneyland’s attraction “It’s a Small World” as well as the animated features “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan.” (Both Coles are big fans of Disney; they along with their two children travel annually to a Disney destination.)
    Amanda explained, “Blair was one of the first women to work for Walt Disney, who said about her ‘She knew about colors I’ve never even heard of.’ She was kind of a S.T.E.A.M pioneer in that way since the A in S.T.E.A.M. stands for arts.”
    “I love the castle that has the mirror behind it,” said Amanda, “It is kind of a surprise and delight thing for the kids when they come in. A lot of times they don’t know it’s a mirror when they come in and they will catch their reflection in it. That is what we were going for – a lot of surprise and delight.”
    The printed ceiling is another “surprise” element. “Every now and then a kid will still look up and say ‘There’s clouds on the ceiling!’ and get excited. It’s all the little subtle details that come together to make the big picture.”
    “I wanted (the classroom) to be immersive, a ‘sky is the limit’ kind of thing. That is what S.T.E.A.M. is all about. In this position I have the opportunity to introduce kids to skills and careers and all kinds of things that they may not even know exist. I am also preparing them for jobs that don’t exist right now. I know they are only kindergarten through second grade right now but it never hurts to have that dream begin. That is really what we’re looking for is an immersive environment where their imagination can really bloom and grow.”
    After securing approval from administrators – everyone from the school principal to the superintendent and board of education, enthusiastically signed off on the project – the Cole’s embarked on dozens of hours of work to create the classroom.
    Instead of painting the classroom, the Coles teamed up with The Gallaher Group to design and print the landscapes' elements on large foam boards and acrylic, all of which were precision cut and then mounted, in layers, on the walls.
    Serendipity was at work from that start, as the large format digital printer and cutter had only been installed at The Gallaher Group for mere weeks when the Coles began to use it. Russ, a former employee of the Ashland-based family-owned printing, graphics, maketing company help to install the new technology when it arrived.  
    Even Gallaher Group owner and founder John Gallaher was amazed at the final results when he toured the classroom this month. “It opens my eyes to the limitless possibilities of what we can do with this new equipment. I continued to be amazed at its capabilities,” he said. “Russ’s creativity drove most of it,” he added, “We just happened to have the technology to accomplish it.” In addition to the Coles a number of other educators have harnessed the new technology to create interactive teaching too for their classrooms, he added.
    Another serendipitous yet key ingredient in the lab’s creation was the reintroduction of the Dataseam program to Russell schools. Dataseam provides high performance computers to schools, which are also used during non-school hours to create a massive grid of computing power that fuels cancer research based out of the University of Louisville’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center.
    The program, which began in 2005, was originally reserved for school districts in counties that received coal severance funds. As the coal industry has continued to decline, the program has been revamped explained Brian Gupton, Dataseam CEO. Russell Primary’s new lab represents the first of the reinstatement of new technology into Russell schools.
    At its core, said Gupton, Dataseam is really about “getting kids into S.T.E.A.M. We want to build that workforce in Kentucky by providing opportunities for kids to be successful.” The labs are also a way to “identify the next generation of science educators,” he added.
    Russell Primary’s lab is believed to be the only one of its kind in the state, according to officials. Its major role is to serve as a springboard for students to leap into using more advanced technology as their academic careers advance.
    “Our main vision is for every single student to be able to come and learn in that environment. We’re hoping that something will strike a chord with them,” said Greta Casto, the school systems chief information officer.  
    “We’re working on building curriculum,” Casto said, “I want students to be immersed in technology.” When a Russell student graduates she wants them to be confident and able to pick the “right tool for the job” whether that be an Apple computer or a PC.
    “Kids will reach the level wherever you set the bar,” added Superintendent Sean Horne. At Russell, it doesn’t take much to imagine that.