It’s Wednesday afternoon at Shady Side Academy Senior School and students are wearing virtual reality headsets. As they “ooh” and “ahh” over the worlds they’ve created, the Beck song “Where It’s At” blares from an overhead speaker.
For technology lovers, this is where it’s at.
The fabrication laboratory, or “fab lab,” is just one component of the new Glimcher Tech & Design Hub, a 12,000-square-foot STEM facility on the 130-acre Fox Chapel campus. The once dark, outdated science classroom now boasts state-of-the-art equipment in a bright and inviting atmosphere.
After years of fundraising, planning and construction, the renovated building opened its doors last month to the private school’s 450 students in grades nine through 12.
Jesse Robinson was recently hired by Shady Side Academy as director to oversee the hub. Part of his job is to forge relationships with local companies to allow students to see real-world applications to the things they’re learning.
“Learning by doing and project-based learning are so important. You see levels of engagement from students go up as they start tinkering and making things. And there’s a bigger connection between the student and the work,” Robinson says. “The Glimcher Tech & Design Hub really hits all of those targets – creativity, innovation, problem-solving – that give students the skills to be successful in an ever-changing world.”
Even before taking the position, Robinson toured educational facilities up and down the East Coast. He researched the latest and greatest technology for the new space which, he says, is unlike any other high school in the region.
Inside the Fabrication and Robotics Wing, pupils have access to myriad high-tech tools, such as the Epilog laser cutter, Roland VersaPrint garment printer and SawStop table saw. Throughout the year, they’ll create aluminum parts on a Torch CNC mill, build robots and pit them against each other in the on-site robotics arena. Other kids will use a Forest Scientific CNC router to make an arcade cabinet for the video games they design.
Over in the Computer Science Wing, a Formlabs 3D resin printer is churning out replicas of human joints so students can better understand and address mobility issues. They tackle these projects in two spacious classrooms, each one equipped with 16 HIP Elite One computers and a 72-inch interactive SMART Board.
As part of the curriculum, every senior school student is required to take two Computer Science courses: a problem-solving-based class and an elective in subjects ranging from mobile app development to artificial intelligence.
But the hub isn’t just a playground for techies.
All students and faculty members are invited to explore the facility and discover how they can integrate the machines into their academic pursuits. No experience is necessary, just a willingness to learn.
The school’s librarian is working on a Harry Potter-based scavenger hunt, complete with radio-frequency identification (RFID) wands that control different devices throughout the library. Physics students will create solar-powered cars. Teens taking German will laser-cut Christmas pyramids.
Three students — all females — are using the hub to complete independent study projects, including a “living wall” of plants watered by robotic arms, reusable water bottles made from recycled aluminum cans and safer, more sterile hockey gloves.
By making the hub a welcoming environment, Robinson hopes more students, especially girls, will take an interest in science, technology, engineering and math. He plans to host professional development days, inviting teachers from other districts to come in and get a crash course in the latest gadgets and gizmos.
At the SSA Cafe, a community gathering space located between the hub’s two wings, students can order coffee, tea and smoothies. Large windows allow them to see directly into the robotics arena and fab lab.
It’s a sight that just might stir their interest in STEM.