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In a matter of months, Columbus High School will hand out diplomas to a second class that has spent a full academic year in the new facility. May will also mark five years since voters approved the $49.9-million bond issue for the project.

The 270,000-square-foot school was constructed with a capacity for 1,400 students, made with parking lots that include 850 stalls and built with three practice fields north of the school designed for various activities.

So, two years in, what's the benefit? How has a new building changed education? What are the results of this shiny, new superstructure on the edge of town? To find those answers, you don't have to look far.

Take your first right when entering the building and eventually you'll end up in what might be considered the pride and joy of the new Columbus High School: The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Academy.

"Since we’ve moved to this building, the technology and equipment we’ve received has dramatically gotten better, and there’s more space, which has allowed us to advance our curriculum and do more with the kids," said Building Construction and Cabinetmaking Instructor Marcus Gillespie. "Basically, it aligned us better with what the community is doing and what the businesses are doing in town."

Gillespie is part of a five-teacher group that leads lessons in the STEM Academy, along with Advanced Manufacturing and Welding Instructor Tracy Dodson, Automotive Technician and Snap-On Certification Instructor Ron Haefner, Pre-Engineering, Robotics, Solidworks and Computer Aided Drafting Instructor Joe Krysl and Pre-Engineering, Electronics, Mechatronics and Robotics Instructor Adam Whitmore.

For Krysl, it's just his first year at CHS. But for the others, they were all part of the move from the old building to the new.

The updates, new equipment and new possibilities were, to put it lightly, astounding.

"I think the vision the superintendent (Troy Loeffelholz) had was, we literally walked out of the other building, just brought some of our curriculum with us, and the vision was everything was going to be new," Haefner said. "I think that’s one of the big reasons we’ve taken a big leap into the present and the near future is through that vision."

Haefner received a classroom with more work bays, all new equipment for modern vehicles and a road force balancer - something required of all General Motors dealerships as well as many other manufacturers such as BMW.

Gillespie has a brand new 37-inch belt sander, new planers, a new dovetail machine, new scaffolding and new safety harnesses.

Krysl and Whitmore's area has 3-D printers provided by Behlen and an updated Solidworks program.

"I used to be in a big lab with two horizontal milling machines, heat treat furnace, foundry, and we got whittled down, whittled down, whittled down to hardly anything you’d see in the (19)50s and (19)60s to coming back to a brand new high school where everything is faster, it’s brighter, it’s cleaner, it’s more inviting," Dodson said.

Although everything students touch and handle in the classrooms is mostly cutting edge, the curriculum, unlike the equipment, didn't take as dramatic of a shift forward.

However, though the lessons are often the same, the ability to put learning into practice is on a much different level.

"The core curriculum doesn’t change, per se, but it’s what we can deliver to the students. We can give them training on the latest equipment, the latest techniques," Haefner said. "If you can envision, if you had a 1970s car, there’s only so much you can teach on that kind of car. But say if you had a 2015, the range of things you can teach might be the same, but we can go more in depth."

Whitmore also offered his perspective.

Students in engineering, drafting and robotics can test parts to see if they're going to fail and where the stress points are in the digital world before putting them into practice in the real world.

"We can go from something on their screen to a finished product in a reasonable amount of time, within days instead of weeks, which is huge," he said. "The students get to see and evaluate what we did well and what we didn't do well."

Even the area of Family and Consumer Sciences has taken a big leap.

At the old building, students were divided into three workstations with a single stovetop.

That often meant groups of eight, nine or 10 and less involvement for everyone. At the new school, there are seven stovetops, Kitchenaid mixers and a host of other new equipment.

"Before, I had 28 kids in three kitchens, so about 10 kids per stove top. It just did not work well, but now we get a lot more one-on-one. Now it’s about four kids per stovetop. You have your own space, your own utensils and all that good stuff," FCS Teacher Carrie Loseke said.

"Hopefully, when there’s another teacher, we have an open room for a culinary room. Once we have another teacher, we’ll expand towards the culinary arts."

And she's not the only one with more opportunities in the works.

In Gillespie's area, students have a room with a workspace used to construct a floor, walls, add a door and a window and install electrical and plumbing.

There's also a slab of concrete outside the school that may eventually be utilized for building houses as part of a construction class. Gillespie is also in talks with a local business about a partnership with CHS in which the students can begin the framing of new homes.

For Dodson, he's already seen the benefit of the new school in the large industrial base that is Columbus.

Behlen Mfg. Co. began its Registered Apprenticeship Program last August, and hired two CHS students to work part-time. Those students are learning and working as industrial technicians.

"For the first time since I’ve been here for 30 years, there’s a big paradigm change. The paradigm change was, ‘You have to be in these classes because that’s where all the money is.’ That came from a student. I asked him, ‘Why are you in here? Because my father told me I need to take these classes because they pay well,’” Dodson said.

"It’s a big shift from when I came. When I started, not a lot of people cared if you knew how to swing a hammer or fix a car. Now it’s, ‘Where are we going to find the kids to fix a car or swing a hammer?' To me, that’s probably the biggest change, the paradigm shift."

All freshmen at Columbus High take an introduction to engineering class. Sophomores can take more advanced classes. Juniors and seniors can earn college credit with several courses that will help them earn certain certifications.

Dodson is often fielding calls from businesses in and outside the community who want to come in and present career possibilities to his students.

His classes are so full that BD Medical has sent over an employee to help run machines during class time.

In January, the STEM Academy was presented the Program of Excellence Award by the Nebraska Association of Skilled and Technical Educators.

Just after the school opened in 2017, the academy was selected as more than 100 sites for the Nebraska Science Festival, an event presented by the Nebraska Medical Center.

It was the first time in five years of the festival that Columbus was a part of the event.

"It’s kind of an understatement, but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of this," Haefner said.

"I think this was the perfect place for a new high school and updating all the programs. The business involvement is there. The community involvement is there. We’re just excited for all those pieces to come together, and I think this was the perfect place for it to happen because you don’t see it anywhere across the state."

Nate Tenopir is the sports editor for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sports@columbustelegram.com

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