Why TCAPS Is Investing Millions Of Dollars In New High School STEM Facilities
By Craig Manning | Nov. 25, 2023
Millions of dollars to build more than 14,000 square feet of new facilities and outfit them with state-of-the-art technology and equipment: That’s the investment Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) is currently making in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Late last month, the district officially broke ground on a pair of brand-new “Innovation & Manufacturing Centers” – one each at Central High School and West Senior High. Once those facilities are complete, district leaders say they will allow TCAPS to level-up its game around STEM education. But what’s behind this big, big bet, and why is TCAPS making it now? The Ticker takes a closer look.
First, some background: The push to build dedicated, well-appointed STEM facilities to service the two main TCAPS high schools is not new. The district has been talking about this eventuality for years, and even positioned the STEM facilities as one of the core reasons for voters to support its 2018 bond campaign.
TCAPS initially estimated that approximately $10 million of the successful $107 million bond would go toward new STEM and robotics facilities. Late last year, the district scaled that estimate back, pulling $2.1 million of those funds for turf replacement projects at both high schools. At the time, TCAPS Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner cited declining enrollments as the reason for the reduction, assuring concerned citizens that the district would still build “first-class facilities” for STEM, but could reduce the price tag by building smaller spaces and then retrofitting empty or underused classrooms in existing buildings to achieve the same impact.
Now, construction is officially underway on those two new STEM centers. Both are slated to be completed by next December, and each will add more than 7,000 square feet of learning space to its respective high school. When asked why the innovation and manufacturing centers were such a high-priority item for TCAPS, Heidi Maltby-Skodack – the district’s executive director of school improvement, STEM and CTE (career and technical education), and innovative programs – says TCAPS has essentially been playing catch-up with STEM all these years. These new facilities, she tells The Ticker, are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put the district ahead of the pack.
“For years, our STEM programming and engineering and design courses have been taught in converted science labs and other retrofitted rooms, and those spaces were just never designed for that kind of hands-on learning,” Maltby-Skodack explains. “So, in 2018, a big part of the bond was to revamp our district’s engineering, robotics, and innovation spaces, and to create the environments that we actually need to offer more authentic application-based STEM learning experiences for our students.”
What, specifically, will the new facilities bring to the table that TCAPS doesn’t have already? According to Maltby-Skodack, both innovation centers will boast dedicated computer-aided design (CAD) labs to support CAD classes, computer science programming, coding courses, and more. Both facilities will also have what the district calls “clean labs,” which will house 3D printers, laser cutters, wazers (a type of waterjet cutting machine that can slice through metal), and other equipment intended for “clean-environment manufacturing.” Messier types of cutting equipment – including plasma cutters and certain types of computer numerical control (CNC) machines – will be housed in separate “raw material manufacturing spaces.”
“The students will have access to all these state-of-the-art pieces of equipment that we don’t have right now, and they’ll be able to use that equipment to create actual parts and build things,” Maltby-Skodack says. “So, for robotics, the students will actually be building their robots using these labs and spaces. For many years, our robotics students have had to go out to local manufacturing businesses and have them cut their parts for them, because we didn’t have the facilities or equipment in-house to do that. Now, we will.”
Speaking of robotics, Maltby-Skodack says the new STEM centers will have “large innovation and manufacturing labs with space permanently set up for robotics.” While TCAPS has built a strong reputation for its robotics programs over the years – teams from both high schools regularly compete in the world championships – the district’s current facilities often leave students without a good space to work.
“They’re practicing with their robots in the hallways, or sometimes even outdoors,” Maltby-Skodack says. “With these new labs, they’ll be able to have partial robotics fields set up for the entire school year.”
Ultimately, Maltby-Skodack hopes the new facilities will help drive even more students toward STEM and manufacturing. Already, she says, the district has drastically upped its game in those areas. Not too long ago, TCAPS didn’t offer much in the way of tech-oriented courses. Now, both Central and West have classes for engineering technology, engineering problem solving, architectural design, civil engineering, computer science, and more. With future workforce opportunities tilting heavily toward STEM – per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM occupations are projected to grow by nearly 11 percent between now and 2032, compared to 2.3 percent for non-STEM careers – Maltby-Skodack sees it as an imperative for a school district to prepare its students to work in those industries.
“STEM careers are on the rise and will continue to be on the rise,” she says. “You hear a lot right now about artificial intelligence and about where the trends for jobs are going, and we just know that if we aren’t offering all our students some sort of access to STEM-related programming, then we’re not doing what we need to do for our kids.”
To make sure STEM students are learning skills that are directly applicable to jobs they might one day hold, TCAPS even consulted with an advisory committee made up of local engineers and manufacturers, to get “input and support on the design of the labs” in its new innovation and manufacturing centers.
“They actually did a review of the equipment we were looking at purchasing, and gave us some feedback on whether or not they felt that was in line with what they needed the students to know and be able to do,” Maltby-Skodack says of TCAPS' local industry consultants. “We have really strong relationships with business and industry, and we’re going to look to build those even further.”Comment