Sumter School District to debut ‘cutting-edge’ mobile STEM labs this fall

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Published: Jul. 26, 2023 at 9:04 PM EDT
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SUMTER, S.C. (WIS) - New and innovative tools to drive students’ interest in STEM careers will be coming to the Sumter County School District this fall.

$750 thousand dollars, including sizable donations from community partners which include the local chapter of a nonprofit known as the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association International, Pilgrim’s Foods and the Sumter Education Foundation, will go toward three cutting-edge resources.

Those are the Cybersecurity Mobile Unit, an RV complete with computers and 3D printing known as the Pilgrim’s STEM Explorer, and a mobile planetarium called the StarLab.

The StarLab has already been introduced to 15,000 students in the district, while the two buses, one of them a converted Sumter School District school bus, will be introduced to students for the first time when the school year begins next week.

“We have the daily opportunity of being able to affect learning by using these tools in our district, which is huge,” Dr. William Wright, Sumter School District Superintendent, said.

The STEM buses will travel to K-12 schools throughout the district, and deliver unique educational opportunities for students.

Through the use of these buses, students will learn about cybersecurity, coding, digital media balance, safe online practices, anti-virus software and robotics, among other topics.

As part of the Pilgrim’s STEM Explorer, students will have the chance to play Mario Kart on the Nintendo Switch and use the game to learn about engineering, independent and dependent variables.

The bus will make stops at district football games this fall.

Dr. David Laws, who helped lead this effort, said conversations surrounding these initiatives have been going on for several years and grew from the challenges of educating children post-COVID.

“At the time I was also in the same capacity, but responsible for virtual learning,” he said. “So I had a good understanding that we had a need in trying to get education to our rural and urban communities.”

The Cybersecurity Mobile Unit was transformed from an outdated bus with 44 passenger seats into a mobile IT lab with new technology.

That transformation took place from September 2021 to April 2023, thanks to the help of volunteers from the AFCEA International Palmetto Chapter.

Volunteers, including James Crawford, the AFCEA regional vice president for the Carolinas Region, and Capt. Adam Levandowski, AFCEA Palmetto Chapter Treasurer, worked four hours per week on the bus.

“It’s really humbling, it really is because what started as a small idea grew into two buses and two permanent teaching positions that will ensure a pipeline for students for years to come,” he said.

The mobile STEM lab has been outfitted with donated network equipment from the district and Shaw Air Force Base, and includes eight workstations.

Levandowski said he was inspired to become involved with the project when he realized that a certain curriculum that his son, a Sumter School District student, was interested in was unavailable.

He then discovered that there was equipment at Shaw that could be beneficial in an effort like this.

“I noticed that we had equipment that was too old to put on the government networks, but not too old to teach with,” Levandowski said. “So I took that, I went to the school district and I asked them, ‘Can I bring this to students to teach?’ That was then that they asked, ‘What can you do if we gave you a bus?’ And this is what happened.”

Aaron Johnson, who will be teaching from the Cybersecurity Mobile Unit in a newly-formed position, said he looks forward to the challenge and has updated his curriculum.

“My passion never fades away no matter where I go at, I can adapt to all things,” he said. “So for me, it’s getting me to think outside the box to get the kids more engaged with a different atmosphere. I’ve been teaching science before, but now it’s more in the cyber-world.”

The district hopes these initiatives will inspire more innovation across the state.

Wright said there is a consistent effort by district officials to give students opportunities for engagement, exposure and exploration in STEM fields.

“This is just a cutting-edge opportunity for us to be able to provide to children to get them a little better prepared, and really that’s what education is all about,” Wright said. “It’s not about just teaching the basics, although that’s necessary, but it’s about creating exploring opportunities for children, and these labs, we’re excited about the opportunity for these labs to help us in those pursuits.”

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