This former auto shop behind Gateway High School has the feel of a mad scientist’s laboratory.
Every inch of the 2,500-square-foot space is crammed with equipment, spare parts and seemingly random odds and ends. Plumbing supplies and plastic pill bottles share space with old analog oscilloscopes. They’re among the many instruments that look like props straight from an old science-fiction movie. Even the surviving traces from the former garage—the old lift system, compressed air tanks and walls lined with wrenches—add to the mood.
Randall Tagg couldn’t be more at home in this kind of setting. An associate professor of physics at the University of Colorado Denver, he thrives in this kind of cluttered environment he affectionately calls a “super inventor’s garage.” That much was clear last week as he moved among the boxes, tools and spare parts. He worked with a sense of purpose as he readied this new “Innovation Hyperlab” for its first crop of students later this month.
“It’s really a nice evolution. They were teaching trade skills with the auto shop,” Randall says. “I see this as a 21st-century evolution of that. We’re trying to fuse those hands-on, trade-oriented education with science and technology.”
The revamped space at Gateway will be the home base for the Aurora Public Schools district’s Innovation Academy. The program seeks to connect high school students with specialized learning based in science, technology, engineering and math. Past APS initiatives like the Aurora LIGHTS program have offered students a medical and biological focus, connecting them with lab space and faculty at the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Sounds pretty fancy, right? The program summons pictures of students studying in cutting-edge labs and working with equipment worth millions. This new hyperlab at Gateway, however, will have the mood and feel of an engineer’s old garage. The stress at this Gateway site is on the engineering in the STEM acronym. With a wealth of tools, materials and mentoring, students will be encouraged to focus on how things work. APS Innovation Academy students recently created a “smart bed” that monitors a sleeping patient—this new lab will offer a dedicated space for creating and finalizing such projects.
“It spans from mechanics to electronics to optics to computer technology,” Randall insists. “The goal is to make it very versatile, to have the kind of gadgets and know-how that make up most everything that we buy or use, at least in a physical, engineering sense.”
It’s a concept that draws from the model of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Randall notes. Students will have access to all the tools and resources they need to bring their projects to life. That fits in perfectly to the mission of the district’s larger Pathways program that seeks to connect students with specialized, real-world curriculum. The first session in the lab is set to include more than 20 students; funding for the project came from the University of Colorado, the National Science Foundation and APS.
All of that money has gone toward building up the mishmash of old science equipment and mechanical odds and ends. Tagg and his team received a few thousand dollars this year from the CU Denver Physics Department to keep up the collection. There’s also a history to this collection. Some of these pieces are relics from in-kind donations and contributions from more than 20 years ago. Some of this science-fiction gadgetry comes straight from Tagg’s own private collection.
What may seem like a garage sale to the casual observer is a gold mine for APS science students, officials insist.
“This is a perfect fit for post-secondary and workforce readiness,” said Carol McBride, development director for the district’s Pathways program. “They’re working in teams, on high-level applications. It’s an opportunity beyond what they have in a regular classroom.”
Tagg led similar sessions for the past few years, but those classes have never had a permanent home. Tagg’s previous Saturday sessions with APS students had no formal home base. He’d work with high school science students in random classrooms around the district.
“We’ve not had a real location for it,” McBride said. “Last year, we had to use space at East Middle School in a regular science classroom. Randy was hauling equipment from everywhere in his car every week. Then he’d have to pack it back up and take it back.
“Now there will be a home for this,” she added.
Tagg followed that pattern as he prepped the lab for its first group of students. He hauled boxes of equipment from his private collection, he spoke of lugging in electron microscopes and other lab equipment that would round out the room’s mad scientist feel. In the end, however, Tagg insisted that the space would not become an extension of his own lab at home or at his office at CU. Instead, he was furiously working to create a space that belonged to the students in every sense.
“It’s not going to be anything like a normal classroom,” Tagg said. “I want the students to own this place.”
This will be the students’ “superlab,” he insists. They’ll set out their own goals. They’ll decide whether they want to work on finding out how old oscilloscopes work or progress on a project designed to improve the effectiveness of helicopter rescue in remote parts of the state. Whatever their ambitions, Randall just wants to make sure there are plenty of odds and ends in the lab to make the projects successful.