Six Howard Kennedy Elementary School students crowd around a laser cutter at Metropolitan Community College (MCC), cheeks pressed against the glass, eyes glued on the action as the machine etches their custom designed nametags into reality.

Ken Heinze, MCC prototype design lab coordinator, steps up and invites the students to open the machine with him. Steam escapes. The tags – mostly written in cursive – aren’t quite ready, but no one minds. There’s plenty to explore at ProtoLab Day Camp.

MCC’s ProtoLab Day Camp provides hands-on learning experiences and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) exposure to underserved youth between the ages of 7 and 18.

While the focus is on learning, the Prototype Design Lab at MCC’s Center for Advanced and Emerging Technology is anything but your typical classroom. The day begins with a safety test in the 8,000 square foot facility, after all.

“We’ll discuss what’s good and not good about some things,” Heinze said. “Open toed shoes are bad and loose clothing could get caught or cause a problem.”

Prepped on safety, students move on to the fun. Working with 3-D pens, the handheld version of a 3-D printer, and exploring virtual reality is always a hit, Heinze said.

“They’ll work with 3-D pens for a couple of hours, and it’s never long enough,” Heinze said. “They want to keep going.”
Heinze said the activities teach camp attendees about physics and the world around them, which helps students connect the dots between technology, math and science.

Gustavo, a fourth grader at Howard Kennedy Elementary, enjoys learning about all three subjects. Building bottle rockets was his favorite part of his day at MCC.

“It felt like I was in college,” Gustavo said.

Towards the end of the day, students take a tour of the 3-D room, learn about the 3-D printer and choose an item to create and leave for the kids coming to camp the next day.

“You take what the kids from the day before wanted you to have,” Heinze said. “That way, they’ll get a dragon or a llama, and everyone is happy and excited to take something home with them.”

Melissa Zeiszler, dean of STEAM at Howard Kennedy, said the camp also provides students with knowledge they can take back to their own campus.

“Kennedy has a 3-D printer, but we’re limited,” Zeiszler said. “The kids come here, and they get to actually learn how to laser cut and print and explore.”

Zeiszler said the activities reinforce the 21st century skills Howard Kennedy Elementary emphasizes.

“They have to think creatively,” Zeiszler said. “They have to problem solve. We give them a challenge and help them to step up and push their way through it.”

MCC’s ProtoLab Day Camp is partially funded by a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska (BCBSNE) grant.

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