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Proposed STEM learning center involves students at Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center

| Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

A proposed outdoor science, technology, engineering and math learning center at Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center is providing instructional opportunities, even before designs are finalized.

The center was awarded a $5,000 grant from the Department of Environmental Protection for the purchase of an electricity-generating windmill. After deciding to expand the project's scope to include a STEM education center in addition to the windmill, the school received a $15,000 grant from The Sprout Fund, which allowed the project to move into the formal planning phase.

The school is negotiating with Pittsburgh-based WindStax Inc. to purchase a vertical axis windmill, EWCTC Principal Todd Weimer said. According to the WindStax website, the company's windmills are self-contained, quiet and environmentally friendly and arrive fully assembled. An array of photovoltaic solar panels could be added to the area of the site around the windmill to provide students with another type of green energy, and WindStax offers weather monitoring equipment mounted on its windmills.

The school enlisted Richard P. Rauso Landscape Architects to design the learning center, and the company has involved students throughout the planning process.

Landscape architect Julia Morrison met with students to conduct a design charrette, a fast-paced brainstorming session to determine what design elements students want to include and discuss the various factors integral to planning a green, sustainable design that works in concert with the site's geography.

“They set up a student committee, and I went and conducted a design charrette with the students. What we did was we talked about the different site attributes, how things like sunlight and wind and water affected the site, and how we could use those in our design,” Morrison said. “We took a survey about the different things the students wanted in the outdoor classroom, and we also sat down and did some drawings together.

“I took that information from the students, and I went back and created a master plan and then came back for their feedback.”

The master plan for the site includes a classroom area featuring a “green roof” covered with modular plastic trays filled with soil and plants — such as sedum and succulents —that can survive for long periods without water and absorb large amounts of water during rainstorms.

Amphitheater seating outside the classroom will provide enough space for about 70 students to use the center simultaneously, and a walkway constructed of porous paving material will lead to an additional educational area at the base of the windmill.

The project plan also features a rain garden to absorb roughly 90 percent of stormwater runoff from the site, according to Rauso, as well as herb, vegetable and medicinal plant gardens that can be utilized by the school's culinary and health occupation technology instructors.

The project will involve students from seven EWCTC departments.

“Without a doubt, the whole premise behind this project is providing students relevant opportunities to learn and to reinforce skills that they have already learned,” Weimer said. “... That's the type of instruction that best benefits kids. That's what they relate to; that's what they need.”

Masonry students will construct the foundation for the windmill, the cement pad for the outdoor classroom, the amphitheater seating and walkways.

Construction students will frame the learning center and green roof as well as connect the electrical wiring for the windmill and learning center. Cabinet-making classes will design and build the furnishings for the interior of the classroom.

Plumbing students will be responsible for controlling water flow to the rain garden, from the green roof and below the walkways.

Mechatronics students will help choose the best windmill for the project, design parts of the interior of the classroom and produce informational interpretive panels placed throughout the learning center area.

The graphic communications and digital media classes will produce marketing and informational materials and compile a video and pictorial history of the project from start to finish.

Weimer said students from Derry Area High School's agriculture and horticulture program will also be involved with the project, choosing and planting trees and plants for the rain garden and the area surrounding the learning center.

When the center is completed, ideally in the fall of 2014, Weimer said, it will be a valuable resource open to students from all grade levels in nearby districts.

“We were excited about the idea because we want to try to promote some green energy and have something unique,” Weimer said. “We're currently seeking more grants, and we'll continue to do that year to year because the concept is being designed so things can be added and it can be expanded over time to provide more opportunities for students to come and learn.”

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913, or