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ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Work continues Monday on the new Duane W. Acklie Hall of Science on the west side of the Nebraska Wesleyan University campus. On Friday, crews hoisted the final beam into place.

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Traveling creativity: high school students help build mobile makerspace labs

Zak Elouartiti started building shelves in the expansive new construction space at The Career Academy because he needed volunteer hours for his government and politics class.

He stayed because he liked the work — and the purpose behind it.

The work is hands-on: outfitting trailers with shelves to hold bins, tables and other necessities for mobile “makerspace labs” that will travel to after-school programs at various elementary and middle schools.

The purpose: supporting efforts to create and strengthen after-school programs for kids.

“I think it’s very cool,” said Elouartiti. “We’re helping a lot of people.”

Elouartiti, a junior at Southeast studying electrical systems in The Career Academy's construction program, has become part of the wide-ranging vision of Beyond School Bells, a statewide public-private partnership, and its vice president Jeff Cole.

The makerspace labs bolster existing after-school programs or create a starting point, offering ideas, storage and what amounts to a fully-equipped portable classroom that promotes creativity and problem-solving.

“We want kids to understand that with basic materials they can be tinkerers and problem-solvers in their communities,” he said.

Start with cardboard and Legos, Cole figures, and that creativity will one day unfold on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Innovation Campus, or result in new businesses and projects that benefit the communities those kids call home.

Beyond School Bells has promoted after-school programs from its inception, focusing primarily on coalitions with 11 rural communities where maintaining quality after-school programming is especially challenging. That’s expanded to other rural communities and Lincoln and Omaha.

The idea for the "Think, Make, Create" labs began after Cole’s organization began focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The first two went to Kearney and Schuyler.

As part of a $900,000 innovation grant from the Nebraska Department of Education to create after-school programs, they expanded that, building labs for Centura Public School and schools in Grand Island, Albion, Beatrice and Auburn.

Cole partnered with Max Cuppens, a Southeast graduate who took time off from his work at a product design school in California to design and build the mobile labs as an Americorps volunteer.

The labs are based on the concept of makerspaces — collaborative work spaces that are found in schools, communities and college campuses. 

Cuppens designed a shelving system in the vans that can hold a dolly, cardboard, a table, scrap wood, foam pieces and a variety of totes that hold everything from markers to Legos.

Now, Beyond School Bells has partnered with Nebraskans for Civic Reform to make two more labs for five after-school programs it runs in Lincoln and Omaha.

To outfit them, Josh Jones, who consults for Beyond School Bells, enlisted the help of students at The Career Academy where he is a coordinator. 

Beyond School Bells contributes money for Career Academy's SkillsUSA club to attend competitions, and the students lend their time and expertise, Jones said.

The high school students’ work will be recorded and used as a template for high school students in other communities to build more labs, Jones said. North Platte and South Sioux City will be the first to use the templates.

“The vision is you’ll have 100 percent of these things throughout Nebraska supporting K-12 programs,” Jones said.

The high school students are making other contributions, too.

Elouartiti proposed an inexpensive way to wire the labs so the newest ones will have electrical capabilities.

“That’s the thing, when you work with kids, they have great ideas,” Cole said. “There’s unlimited potential.”

Local governments won't say what they're offering Amazon

PHILADELPHIA — State and local governments have been more than happy to play up the amenities they think make their locations the best choice for Amazon's second headquarters. But many of them will not disclose the tax breaks or other financial incentives they are offering the online giant.

More than 15 states and cities, including Chicago, Cleveland and Las Vegas, refused requests from The Associated Press to detail the promises they made to try to lure the company.

Among the reasons given: Such information is a "trade secret" and disclosing it would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

"We want to be in the best possible position to negotiate. We don't want the whole world to know our strategy," Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island said in a radio interview.

Amazon's search for a second headquarters city has triggered an unprecedented competition among governments around North America to attract a $5 billion project that promises to create 50,000 jobs. The retailing behemoth has made clear that tax breaks and grants will be a big factor in its decision. It received 238 proposals and said it will announce a decision sometime this year.

Public records laws around the country vary, but when courting businesses, governments generally aren't required to disclose tax breaks and other incentives during the negotiating phase.

Open-government advocates, though, argue that Amazon is a special case because of the way it has turned the project into a public auction, the large amount of taxpayer money at stake, and the political clout the Seattle-based company could have in its new home.

"They're just acting like this is another secret deal," said Greg LeRoy, head of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit group that tracks economic development spending. "This is a nutty situation."

He said there are no grounds for hiding the information since no one is negotiating yet with Amazon.

"It's all paid for by taxpayer dollars," he said. "Therefore, it should all be public."

In recent months, Amazon suitors in Maine have cited New England's charm, skiing and beaches, Detroit has cited its rebounding downtown, and others have boasted of their labor forces or public transportation. Chicago recruited "Star Trek" actor William Shatner to help narrate a video pitch in hopes of getting the attention of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, a devoted Trekkie.

The AP asked for copies of the financial proposals from dozens of places trying to draw Amazon. The AP also sought invoices outlining how much public money was used to create the proposals and promote them via public relations campaigns.

Some state and local governments have shared details of the financial incentives they are dangling. New Jersey's pitch contains $7 billion in tax breaks, a draft of Houston's plan calls for about $268 million in inducements, and Boston's offer includes $75 million for affordable housing for Amazon employees and others.

But others — including Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Nevada, Virginia and such cities as Detroit; Philadelphia; Orlando, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; and Albuquerque, New Mexico — won't say exactly what they're offering.

Chicago said releasing such information "could give an advantage to another applicant," and it turned over to the AP 82 pages of nondisclosure agreements. Charlotte, North Carolina, gave a similar explanation.

An Amazon spokesman declined to comment. Amazon said in its request for proposals in September that "certain aspects" of the project and details about the company "are confidential, proprietary and constitute trade secrets."

Many of the bids received by Amazon were submitted by outside groups such as regional economic development agencies that are not typically required by public records laws to release such information.

More than 40 other requests from the AP for financial information produced no responses from government agencies or are still under consideration.

In Texas, for example, cities including Dallas, Houston and Austin responded to the AP's request by asking the state attorney general for an opinion on whether some of the financial details can be withheld for competitive reasons.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, lamented: "The people of our state can't really follow the money anymore. ... Taxpayers have a right to see how their money is being spent."

John Marion, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said the state has been publicly selling itself in part by telling Amazon it would be a big player in a small state.

"We don't necessarily want a company that can throw its weight around. So it would be interesting to know how that message was represented in the bid," he said.

According to records obtained by the AP, the costs associated with the proposals themselves ranged from a few hundred dollars for copies, to tens of thousands of dollars for promotional efforts.

In Philadelphia, an independent development agency overseeing the city's bid said it spent $160,000 to develop and promote its proposal, including a website and video. Worcester, Massachusetts, released invoices showing that it spent more than $10,500 on its proposal, most of it on a video. Virginia Beach, Virginia, spent $3,000 to build a sand sculpture to promote its application.

Diplomats scramble to contain outrage over Trump's remarks

WASHINGTON — American diplomats scrambled Friday to salvage their nation's bonds with Africa, Haiti and even the celebrated "special relationship" with Britain after President Donald Trump, in the span of a few hours, deeply offended much of the world with the most undiplomatic of remarks.

Trump's description of African nations as a "shithole" and other inflammatory comments became the latest and perhaps most direct test of whether America's global partnership can withstand its president's loose lips. In Washington and far-flung foreign capitals, U.S. officials launched into urgent cleanup mode.

As world leaders denounced the comments as racist, Trump's ambassadors to Botswana and Senegal were both summoned to explain his remark, as was the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti, where there is no ambassador, State Department officials said. In addition to the Africa slur, Trump during a meeting Thursday with lawmakers questioned why the U.S. would need more Haitian immigrants.

The White House, too, was reeling from the fallout. Staffers fanned out to do television appearances in support of Trump and reached out to Republicans on Capitol Hill to coordinate damage control.

Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, in charge of U.S. public diplomacy, said Trump has the right to "make whatever remark he chooses," calling it the benefit of being president. He said Trump's comments notwithstanding, it was diplomats' obligation to send the message to other countries that the United States cares "greatly about the people that are there."

"Will they have to work extra hard to send it today? Yes, they will, but that's OK," Goldstein said. "That's part of the responsibility that they have. It doesn't change what we do."

But how does anyone — even a seasoned diplomat — explain to a foreign leader why the U.S. president would use such a demeaning epithet to describe their country? What could they say to keep the relationship on track?

State Department officials said they were advising diplomats to prepare to get an earful, and to focus on listening to and acknowledging those countries' concerns. Rather than try to interpret or soften Trump's remarks, diplomats were encouraged to focus on specific areas where the two countries are cooperating — trade, for example — and to emphasize that those tangible aspects of the relationship transcend anything the president did or didn't say, said the officials, who weren't authorized to disclose private conversations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

"I think you just have to take it. It's almost impossible for diplomats to say something that would make an African government feel better," said Grant Harris, who ran Africa policy at the White House under former President Barack Obama. "So you say the U.S. government is committed to being a strong partner and that actions speak louder than words.

"The problem is, for many other administrations, the actions spoke more loudly," Harris added.

There was at least as much at stake in the president's jab at the United Kingdom — perhaps the most important U.S. relationship. Facing protests during an upcoming trip to London to open the new U.S. embassy, Trump canceled his visit and said on Twitter it was to protest the "bad deal" the Obama administration reached for the new embassy building. In fact, President George W. Bush's administration announced the embassy would move because of unsolvable security concerns about the old one.

Trump ignored shouted questions about his Africa comment and about whether he's a racist during an event Friday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. But he wasn't silent the night before.

As his comments, disclosed by participants in the meeting, ricocheted around the world, Trump made calls to friends and outside advisers to judge their reaction to the tempest, said a person who spoke to Trump but wasn't authorized to discuss a private conversation.

He wasn't apologetic, the person said. Instead, Trump blamed the media for distorting his meaning, arguing his description of "shithole" was not racist but rather a straightforward assessment of some nations' depressed conditions. Trump also said he believed he was expressing what many people think, according to the person.

The long-term damage to America's global relationships was difficult to predict. But foreign policy experts agreed it could only further alienate the United States at a time when many nations already see the U.S. as a less reliable partner than in the past.

In Africa, where the U.S. has long enjoyed widespread popularity, it was possible that countries would ultimately decide they have little recourse other than lodging angry complaints. After all, many of those nations rely on military and economic assistance from Washington. Haiti, though geographically close to the U.S. and historically intertwined, is not a major diplomatic player or key partner for trade, counterterrorism or other top priorities.

Ambassador James Jeffrey, the former U.S. envoy to Turkey and Iraq under Bush, said the ramifications of Trump's remarks extended far beyond the countries he insulted. He said the "shithole" comment, in particular, would rattle European nations who fear a return to the xenophobic world view that devastated the continent during World War II.

"Where this is going to hurt us is with the Europeans when we turn to them for other things that require a you-just-have-to-trust-us kind of thing, like right now on Iran," Jeffrey said. "It makes it very hard for them to go out on a limb with things he's asking them to do."