With a $25,000 grant to spend, teacher Renee Powell logged in to Amazon and started placing 3D printers, robots, virtual reality goggles, digital microscopes, drones and sewing machines in her virtual shopping cart.

Figuring she must be getting close to the limit, Powell checked the total and found she had spent only about $9,800.

“It was the best overwhelming situation that I’ve ever been in,” said Powell, who teaches science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at Lanier Elementary School.

She kept shopping to create the Extreme Classroom Makeover envisioned in the school’s winning video for the program funded by Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

Although she worked every day to complete the makeover, “this has been the best summer I’ve ever had,” Powell said during an open house Monday morning at Lanier.

With all the new equipment Powell said she has a lot to learn, but she knows if she can’t figure it out, the students will help.

As students walked into the new STEM lab Monday at Lanier their jaws dropped at the equipment lining the walls, as new tables and rolling chairs previewed a wide range of possible seating configurations in the middle of the room.

Walking down the hallway later to see the new broadcast studio also created with the grant, one rising sixth grader said she almost wanted to be held back so she could stay at the elementary school, but the kids know their hard work winning the grant will pay off for the students coming through Lanier behind them.

Outside the studio some literally jumped with joy and bounced on their toes.

ORAU President Andy Page was at the open house to welcome students to “the lab that you created” and said seeing the makeovers is one of the best parts of being the CEO.

ORAU has donated more than $384,000 over the past 11 years to strengthen education in STEM learning with its Extreme Classroom Makeovers.

Out of the ashes

News of the grant came just in time for Powell. An old portable classroom she used for storage caught fire and destroyed the milk jugs, paper tubes and other materials collected for her classes and an upcoming STEM night early this year.

She had taken materials out on Monday, and when she went to return them Wednesday everything was black and some windows were blown out by the heat of a fire that may have started with an electrical problem and put itself out.

“I was so discouraged,” she recalled. “Everything was smoke damaged, black soot.”

Principal Teresa Robinson assured the teacher that everything would be okay. She had learned that day that Lanier would receive the grant, but Powell and her students were surprised with a giant check presentation in March.

During Monday’s open house above all the new equipment were displays of props students created during recess and after school for their video entry in the contest, such as 3D printers made of boxes, and microphones crafted from tennis balls and cardboard tubes.

Whole school benefits

Teachers such as Susan Cupp also were excited about the materials that will support their lessons, such as magnets, planet models and circuits.

During the spring STEM night, students were lined out the door to experience virtual reality with a few goggles, and now there is a classroom set.

“It gives them a chance to visit places they may not be able to go,” noted Lynda Regal, a speech pathologist at Lanier who also leads the after school STEM Scouts program with Powell. In a social studies class, for example, students can virtually visit the Sahara Desert.

At Lanier all students from prekindergarten through fifth grade have about 40 minutes a week in Powell’s STEM class, plus STEM Scouts meet after school.

In the upcoming school year STEM activities also will be offered as an elective for third- through fifth-graders during recess.

Powell already had been collaborating with other teachers to reinforce their lessons, and now she will be able to work in math and science classrooms two days a week.

A health station in the lab includes eye, heart and muscle models, as well as stethoscopes. The “How It Works” station will allow them to take apart equipment such as old computers and radios.

The sewing machines and Cricut die cutters were inspired by Powell seeing students checking out fashion sites online. “I Googled, ‘What do you need to know to be a fashion designer,” the teacher said. “The first thing you need to know is how to sew.”

“To me it’s becoming a lost art in our society, so that would be a good thing for a lot of reasons,” she said.

“I want them to be exposed to as many things as possible while they’re at Lanier,” so something will spark their passion, the teacher said.

Last year the students created a news program out of a closet, with a laptop on a rolling cart to record the video. The new studio has two cameras on tripods and audio recording equipment to launch a podcast.

Powell knows how to make do with what she has too, so the new STEM lab still has the old dusty rose colored countertops, now with coordinating fabric curtains hiding the storage below.

A decorative clapperboard on the studio wall is made with an old bulletin board and covers a hole in the wall.

She still has about $2,300 of the grant to spend, but those 3D printers, die cutting machines and sewing machines will need materials with which students can experiment.

Watch the Lanier students’ winning contest video online at http://bit.ly/LanierORAU.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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