HOLDREGE — The students hovered around 10 different lab stations set up in the Holdrege Middle School Media Center.

Some students sat and quietly chatted with a partner in order to solve a problem while other students giddily bounced around trying to master the 3D printer.

“This is awesome,” said a student who donned a virtual reality headset.

The eighth-grade science students at Holdrege Middle School were taking part in ESU 11’s Create, Solve, Innovate Labs.

The mobile science, technology, engineering and mathematics lab has been traveling to area schools this fall. The CSI Labs will travel to each of the 13 schools in ESU 11 for a two-week period. Typically, students in seventh and eighth grades will be able to use technology they currently may not have at their school, but some schools have utilized the opportunity for all of their high school students, said CSI Labs coordinator Monica Boyken.

“The whole idea behind this is a very important skill for our workforce which is figuring it out,” Boyken said.

Being able to problem-solve and “figure it out” is a strength employers are looking for in potential employees, Boyken explained. The CSI Labs were modeled after Nebraska Public Power District’s STEM Connections Lab. The idea to bring the mobile lab to south-central Nebraska students began with a discussion between ESU 11 administrator Greg Barnes, NPPD and area manufacturers.

“We have a lot of businesses in south-central Nebraska within our ESU area that are struggling to fill their labor forces today. They need people with those problem-solving, critical-thinking skills so it’s just a chance for them — the businesses — to connect with students and start developing relationships earlier with those students,” Barnes said in Feb. 15 Kearney Hub article.

Area businesses and foundations who have sponsored the CSI Labs include Becton Dickinson, LandMark Implement, Phelps County Development Corporation, Phelps County Community Foundation, Grayson Tool, Southern Power District, Twin Valleys Public Power District, Nebraska Corn Processing, Dawson Public Power District, Pinpoint Communications and Royal Engineered Composites.

Boyken does an orientation on the CSI Labs when it first arrives at each school about the 10 lab stations, which includes equipment such as a 3D printer, a Carvey CNC machine, robotics, virtual reality, sensor stations, a vinyl cutter and more. Students can use the equipment before or after school. It’s almost best if their teachers know as little about the equipment as the students in order for the youths to problem solve on their own, Boyken said.

Manuals about the equipment are available, and each station is equipped with a laptop computer that students can utilize if they are in need of help.

“Some of them decide, ‘Yep, I’m kind of a rule follower. I’m going to go through each of the steps in these directions.’ And other ones are like, ‘I’m going to start messing around to see how to make it,’” Boyken said.

HMS eighth-grade science teacher Anna Anderson has witnessed students who may struggle in a typical classroom setting thrive while using the CSI Labs.

“They have just worked in here each day to build those skills of grit, failing, trying again, searching out our own answers to our own questions. They can’t ask me. I had to make a rule today that they couldn’t ask each other until I said so,” Anderson said.

When Anderson did give the students the chance to ask one another for help, some immediately sought out peers who had successfully used pieces of equipment to give them guidance while others continued to work on their own to master the technology.

The CSI Labs have stopped at Axtell, Wilcox-Hildreth, Minden, Holdrege High School and Holdrege Middle School this fall. The last stop this semester will be Loomis.

The CSI Labs will be in use until 2022. Barnes hopes that the equipment will spark enough interest that schools will purchase some of their own technology.

The skills students learn while working with the CSI Labs equipment is just as important, if not more so, as understanding the technology.

“One of the other things along with figuring it out is failure is an alright thing. We talk about Thomas Edison, and he said, ‘I have never failed, but I have 10,000 ways that it won’t work.’ Those are the philosophies behind the lab,” Boyken said.

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