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.

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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.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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