A new STEAM lab at The Oakwood School is incubating innovative ideas that benefit students and will ultimately benefit Pitt County, according to school officials.

The private pre-K-12 school outside of Greenville formally opened the Oakwood Innovation Lab on Wednesday during a virtual ribbon cutting. Officials said the class space for the science, technology, engineering, arts and math program is a state-of-the-art, hands-on learning lab that will help prepare students for life beyond graduation.

“It is hard to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet, but this lab allows them to learn skills that transfer to any profession — collaboration skills, presentation skills, problem solving skills,” Head of School Dan Quesnel said. “For example, you can try something in the lab that may be difficult. If you don’t succeed at the first time, you learn from that and move forward. That is a gift we can give these kids.”

Quesnel said he would like to see a pipeline developed for local talent.

“We have partners like Pitt Community College, ECU and manufactures we work closely with. We know that home-grown talent is most likely to stay in the area. If we get kids excited about some of these high-tech skills, they then can attend local colleges and universities and, hopefully, they will stay in the area and work with local employers. I think that is important for the long-term success of the area.”

The lab allows students in grades 6 through 12 to explore STEAM and media arts through applied technology and project-based learning, said Oakwood’s Kristopher Arnold, executive director of Horizons and Middle School Social Studies and Mathematics. “It is a fully integrated environment that supports hands-on, personalized learning — relevant to each student’s interests and experiences.”

Students in the program are encouraged to develop projects in the area of exploration include, circuitry, computer graphics, digital communications, mechanics and structure, robotics, controlled technology, scientific data and analysis, software engineering and sustainability. Advanced equipment, technology and teaching help them do it.

“It is hard to explain what you do in this class because there is just so much,” lab facilitator Chris Young said. “We’ve had students make a wind turbine that powers lights, we’ve had students making solar cars, we’ve had students cooking with solar ovens, and we’ve had students making Lego robotic elephants that move and make noise. We’ve had students making bridges that won’t break under ridiculous amounts of pressure. We’ve had students making video games. The learning potential is endless in here. It is pretty amazing to see how a student will take a project and run with it.”

The lab went from concept to reality in just over a year, said Cynthia Rawls, a volunteer, school trustee and grandmother of a student. She approached Quesnel in the spring of 2019 about helping to fund a program for students who wanted to study engineering and computer graphics, and jobs in STEAM areas.

Quesnel visited a similar lab in Fayetteville and realized it was a perfect fit, he said. The school contracted with Creative Learning Systems out of Longmont Colorado to build the lab. The company has over 600 labs across the United States; Oakwood is the eighth lab it has built in North Carolina.

The company’s Lee Robertson participated in Wednesday’s event and said the lab teaches students to be adaptable and flexible.

“Our curriculum is ever expanding, ever adjusting to new technologies,” he said. “We have a sustainability capability built in, so they are able to add new technologies as part of a support package. This should not be the same lab in five years as it is today. If we don’t have the latest and greatest in here, we become stale.”

Creative Learning also trained Young, who had been a teacher with Pitt County Schools for 13 years. Young emphasized he is a facilitator, not a teacher.

“A teacher is someone that stands in front of students and talks. I am a facilitator. When a student comes and asks me a question, I sit down beside them and we figure it out together. I fully believe this is going to be a revolution in learning. I picture education over the next 10 to 15 years, changing due to labs like this,” he said.

According to Quesnel, the lab was paid for completely through donors, who gave about $200,000. “It is designed to stretch kids academically,” he said. “We expect them to fail, but do so in a way they fail forward. They learn from their mistakes. They learn what went wrong and how to overcome problems when they apply creative solutions. These are great skills for them to have going into the future.”

Linda Uveges, director of teaching and learning at Oakwood, said the integration of STEAM disciplines is crucial for all students — not just those who are naturally proficient in math and science — because art and math play a critical role in every job, every home and every aspect of advanced learning. She said when she enters the lab, students are buzzing with energy and enthusiasm.

“It is a learning community where students take responsibility for their own learning; autonomy is encouraged; collaboration is the norm and problems are celebrated as a path to mastery,” she said. “The lab engages learners as they apply technologies to projects they design. They make academic connections and develop skills needed for college and career success,” she said.

As part of the ceremony, those who attended were encouraged to visit the lab and ask the students questions about their projects.

Eighth-graders Alina Sohail and Elliott Moore were working on a green screen project and produced a video — where they had placed themselves in the game Minecraft.

“It is really cool. We are basically just walking around exploring worlds (in the game.) This is going to be really good for any projects we have — like if we want it to look like we are in a newsroom,” said Sohail.

She loves the creativity that can be expressed in the class.

“I like how open-ended it is,” she added. “You can add your own creativity. You are basically making your own story. (The class) is supposed to be a place where you can get creative. We are always doing something hands-on. It is super fun and I look forward to it everyday.”

In another room inside the lab, Lorelei Weaver and Lucy Schmidt were using Lux blocks to build a castle.

“These structures are used to figure out how real architects build buildings to sustain against heavy winds,” said Schmidt. “[In here] you get to express your own freedom and express your creativity through lot of different things.”

Weaver added, “I’m glad I took this class because I’ve learned a lot of different things I never really would have thought about. It opened me up to a lot of new ideas.”

School trustee Rawls called the lab an incredible addition to the school that she hopes will inspire other people to step forward and say “‘let’s do this for our students.’”

“I find it amazing that in its 25th year, Oakwood is reinventing itself again. It was founded as a school that was to offer a new form of education in Pitt County. We are delighted we are again bringing something new to our students.”

She said she and the other donors see the lab a lasting gift to Oakwood.

“It is something that will change the school, that will change the lives of the students and ultimately will change the lives of our community,” she said.