InTrans / May 16, 2024

BEC project supports STEM Lab opening at West Des Moines elementary school

Bridge Engineering Center (BEC) Research Engineer Brent Phares knows one day soon he will be replaced.

That’s why he’s dedicated so much time, money, and effort to ensuring that the next generation that will succeed him is prepared to excel in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Phares’ latest endeavor has included helping the BEC to secure two grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) totaling $1.9 million that included some funding to support STEM outreach in K-12 schools. He and the research team, in addition to supporting the development of tools and techniques for faster bridge construction, have directed about $50,000 of those funds to establish STEM Labs at West Des Moines’ Fairmeadows Elementary School and at Waukee’s Sugar Creek Elementary School.

“The students have had so much fun extending their learning through the use of these tools, whether it’s the podcast or the Bee-Bots,” Fairmeadows Elementary School Principal Brandon Pierce said at a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school’s STEM Lab.

As part of the day, some of the school’s sixth-graders put together a podcast—using equipment from the lab—welcoming guests and then shared some of their favorite lab items, and Montana Upchurch’s third-grade class demonstrated how they used the Bee-Bot programmable robots as part of their lessons on literacy and early programming skills.

“Early age exposure to STEM is crucial to getting kids interested in and excited about STEM careers,” Phares said after the event. “The U.S. DOT grant afforded me the opportunity to provide resources to two schools to advance their STEM laboratories, something that is near and dear to me.”

BEC’s Brent Phares, left, listens to Fairmeadows third-graders discuss their use of Bee-Bots in the school’s new STEM Lab

He added that once that interest and excitement are instilled, that desire to learn never ends. Phares even joked that desire to learn extended to BEC staff who have wanted to “test” the STEM Lab equipment before passing it along to the elementary schools.

The equipment started to arrive at BEC offices in January, and items are still making their way to the schools, including an expected and awaited three-dimensional printer. In addition to the podcast equipment and Bee-Bots, the Fairmeadows STEM Lab is equipped with a hydroponic gardening tower, coding robots, engineering kits, circuit board kits, and a video green screen, among other items.

“We want all kids to know they belong in STEM,” said Fairmeadows Instructional Coach Carrie Boik, who along with the school’s Teacher-Librarian Maria Steffen, discussed the process of outfitting the lab with equipment that would excite and educate all elementary students.