Scientifically speaking; Neveln gets new science lab space, expands its library to fill up a hall

Neveln Launch teacher Rachel Stange points out some of what the new program’s amenities including the opportunity for students to plug into screens around the room. Photos by Eric Johnson/

Neveln Launch teacher Rachel Stange points out some of what the new program’s amenities including the opportunity for students to plug into screens around the room. Photos by Eric Johnson/

Austin Public Schools is launching a new curriculum and space at Neveln Elementary School to help prepare students for I.J. Holton Intermediate School and the future.

Renovations were completed at Neveln this summer to help pilot the Launch program to see if it’s a good fit for Austin’s elementary schools. Launch is the elementary curriculum for Project Lead the Way (PLTW), which is a program that supplies training and curriculum for teachers to implement science, technology, engineering, mathematics — or STEM — concepts into their classrooms. I.J. Holton was Austin’s first STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics school — and Neveln’s Launch program will help propel students into the sciences and be prepared when they reach I.J. Holton.

“The main hope for this change and one of the main pushes for Project Lead The Way … is to create kids who have questioning minds and are problem solvers,” Neveln Principal Dewey Schara said.

The curriculum encourages students to use critical thinking, as Schara said students might participate in activities such as getting a box of materials and instructions to build something specific, or get a problem that they need to come up with a solution for on their own.

“As hard as we work on math, reading and science, we still could do more with critical thinking and problem solving with students,” Schara said.

Launch teacher Rachel Stange is excited to start the year and see where the students will take the program.

Writing on the walls Nevelen Elementary School’s new Launch program area proclaim support for the school.  Eric Johnson/

Writing on the walls Nevelen Elementary School’s new Launch program area proclaim support for the school.
Eric Johnson/

“I think our biggest goal is for students just to be excited about science and computer engineering and technology,” she said.

Stange has been a teacher at Neveln for five years and has taught for seven years, teaching first, third, fourth and fifth grades. She received her master’s degree in Science and Literacy and took special training for the Launch program. She will work with the classroom teachers when students come to her class and will also work closely with the school’s technology integrationist. She said over conferences parents have been able to view the new space and also seem excited.

One of the reasons the program is piloting at Neveln is location. After Neveln moved its library upstairs, the old space was converted to the science lab Launch Pad. Because of the move, administrators were able to buy more bookshelves for the library and will get about 2,000 more books sometime this year. The new science lab now has a door directly to a computer lab and a door directly outside, making everything more accessible for the class.

The construction for the Launch Pad is almost complete, as administrators are only waiting on a few things, such as a teacher’s desk and totes for storage. Schara said the quick construction was organized very well by Mat Miller, the director of facility services for Austin Public Schools.

“He has been on top of it from the get go, and that’s why we feel like every piece of construction … went very well and will serve the purpose we want for it,” Schara said.

The construction company, JD Driver, was able to get into the school the day school let out, according to Schara, and he credits much of that organization to Miller, who has also organized several other renovation projects this summer for the district.

“Mat has been on top of it all summer long and so we really owe him a big thanks,” Schara said.

The lab has several workspaces, along with two walls students can write on, television screens for presentations, six high-top tables with adjustable height and wheels, and a flexible learning space. In the past, science has at times been pushed behind other classes like math or reading, often because it can take a long time to set up classrooms for science projects, among other reasons. The Launch Pad class will be devoted to science, with more technology and more hands-on projects. Neveln first- and second-graders will go to the Launch Pad once a week for 50 minutes, and third- and fourth-graders will go three times a week for 50 minutes for the entire school year.

Schara is hopeful it will work out, and said if the program is successful after a few years, it is something that could be implemented in each elementary school.

“It makes sense for you to try it in one place and work out the bugs than to try it in four schools and find out it doesn’t work,” Schara said.

The program is designed to help get students ready for I.J. Holton Intermediate School and the STEAM curriculum. The curriculum at the middle school level — or in Austin grades fifth through eighth — includes seven classes such as design and modeling, automation and robotics, energy and the environment, flight and space and more. Many schools use the program as an elective for students, and some have an application process for students. At I.J. Holton, all the fifth- and sixth-grade students take a quarter of the classes to introduce every student to the program.

“We want [our students] to walk into I.J. and say, ‘This is awesome, we can’t wait to use this stuff,’ as opposed to being intimidated by these things,” Schara said.

Neveln paid for the materials and Launch curriculum with building funds, which came to about $37,000 for items such as iPads, curriculum and materials, teacher training, library equipment such as bookshelves, and other miscellaneous costs. The district paid for the construction costs out of the building capital and the regular operating capital, which is part of the normal operating budget, which came to about $100,000.

Neveln did get some help with the costs, however, as Schara said administrators received a $25,000 grant for the America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education program, sponsored by the Monsanto Fund.

Schara said a local farmer or group of farmers nominated the school, as the grant requires nomination from the local chapter to the larger chapter. Administrators then had to write a 20-30 page report detailing what they would do with the money.

“You have to be very specific of how every penny is going to be spent,” Schara said.

He was very excited that Neveln received the grant, and said it’s affirmation of an outside party thinking the project is worth investing in.

“It’s a very big deal,” Schara said. “It’s a very big grant which will really make sure that this project was done properly and make sure we have all the tools in place to be successful.”

Schara said the grant money will help offset the costs Neveln paid.

Cost breakdown for the Launch Pad at Neveln Elementary School

$17,000 Project Lead The Way curriculum and equipment

$10,000 10 iPads

$5,000 Library equipment, furniture and books

$5,000 Teacher training and miscellaneous expenses

$100,000 Construction costs

—Costs are all approximate.



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