Spark Strategic Plan 2023: From Imagination to Reality

This story originally appeared in the Spark 2023 Impact Update, a publication highlighting the accomplishments of St. Stephen's 5-year strategic plan. 

Stepping in the Project and Idea Realization Lab (PIRL) is an experience. At any given time, the room is buzzing with creativity. It’s not unusual to hear zipping sounds of 3D printing machines making parts for student projects, the hum of students collaborating with one another or feel the forceful banging of tools students are using to hammer, drill or build. Across the room, a large tool wall stretching from nearly floor to ceiling holds a number of saws, wrenches, pliers, work gloves and other power tools. Next to the tool wall is an oversized white board displaying written details for student assignments and projects. In the middle of the room are several work tables, and a large flat screen monitor – all evidence that serious critical thinking, handy work and innovation are in progress.

The PIRL is a place where ideas and blueprints come to life and transform into reality. It provides an environment for all members of the St. Stephen’s community to engage in design, innovation and creative service while also recognizing the individual, local and global hope and change that compassionate making can bring to society.

“I think we were looking for a way to engage more students and Nicole and I are both interested in project-based learning as well as making computer science more interesting,” says Dan Laws, director of technology.

The PIRL is also a place where Laws and Wortham teach classes like Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, among others, which Laws says is also a great way to capture students’ interest. The PIRL started with just one curious student participant when it first opened in 2018, now nearly 20 students regularly use the space to make, engage and learn. In addition to the laser cutter, power and hand tools, students have access to a Shopbot Desktop CNC Router, a Shopbot Desktop MAX CNC Router, an Epilog Mini 18 laser cutter, a Makerbot Method X Carbon Fiber dual extrusion 3D printer, an Ultimaker S5 dual extrusion 3D printer, a Form 2 Stereolithography printer, a sewing machine, Arduino open-source electronic prototyping platform, Raspberry Pi computers and microcontrollers and LilyPad sewable electronics. These technologies help students create models, prototypes and patterns in 3D and program innovative computer simulations.

“It’s about lowering the barriers of entry,” says Nicole Wortham, curriculum and innovation integration specialist. “I like to think back to how much money you would have needed to make prosthetic limbs. We don’t need $10 million to make limbs anymore. We can make it on a printer with $20 of material. So, I think my vision around this space is to give kids access to tools and to processes that allow them to enter into these ventures right now.”

Emmie Casey '23 used the space to create a prosthetic hand called the Vibrotactile Glove for a parent who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Collaborating with Wortham, Electronic and Robotics instructor Troy Lanier, industry experts and using research originating at Stanford University, Casey built the parts and technology in the PIRL. Her invention, now transferred to a current student, is developing into a functioning prototype that has extraordinary future potential.

“We’re making something to perhaps reverse the effects of Parkinson’s and that is directly tied to who we [St. Stephen’s] say we are in this world,” says Wortham.“ These kids are also doing data analysis around school shootings and climate change. This is what this space should be about.”

Creating a space for students to not only learn and imagine but also turn their imagination into groundbreaking data-science projects is a fully realized goal of Spark 2023. This initiative empowers students to become inventors and innovators.

“This is giving kids that space to realize you don’t have to wait until you’re 30 to make a change. You can do something right now,” says Wortham.

One St. Stephen’s alumnus who currently works in the technology and engineering industry says the PIRL is a necessity in today’s schools where students can prepare for what lies ahead.

“I think that it is not that difficult to go take programming classes, learn how to program and get a job programming,” says Reed Coke '09, director of engineering at Austin-based Kung Fu AI. “I think it is much more difficult to learn how to collaborate on a team and compromise and put different ideas together to come up with something better and solve the real problem that needs solving. And I think that the way that the space is set up — the types of activities and lessons that the students go through here really do facilitate that.”

The PIRL is open during the day for students, for teachers to bring a class to work on projects together and for faculty, day and boarding students hosting after school and weekend activities.
Address: 6500 St. Stephen's Dr., Austin, TX 78746
Phone: (512) 327-1213