Unique educational experiences aren’t confined to traditional classrooms. Community organizations and partnerships are enlightening, enriching — and uplifting students in novel ways.

Taking flight

At Metro Community College, students are learning how to do sheet metal work the cool way — by building an airplane. By the end of the class, students will have assembled a real airplane that someone could buy. And fly.

The students, two or more at a time, spend four hours a day, five days a week for five weeks working on the plane, then are replaced by another set of students. Each gets 100 hours of training in basic skills, says Sam Dickson, workforce training manager at Metro.

The program is part of the Nebraska Community College Gap Assistance Program, a state-backed effort to provide short-term training for people seeking a job or career. They can discover whether sheet metal, fiber optics, automotive, culinary or flooring work or some other trade appeals to them.

“It gives them an idea if that’s what they really want to do,” says Doug Klug, training coordinator of the Sheet Metal Workers Local 3, a union that works with Metro on the program.

Cyber hawks

As computers have wedged their way into every aspect of society, scoundrels seeking to exploit computerization for criminal purposes have weaseled their way in, too.

Now a huge field has opened for people who can detect and play defense against breachers, hackers and attackers aiming to create chaos or make a buck by stealing organization and personal information.

Bellevue University has invested $1.3 million into a cybersecurity laboratory in which students learn how to keep criminals from breaching supposedly secure networks.

The centerpiece of the Intelligence Systems Lab is a 25-foot-wide, almost 5-foot-tall data wall that can show

slides, students in remote locations, videos, websites, data analysis results and many other things.

A smaller data wall is located in a meeting nook in the back of the lab.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security honor strong academic cybersecurity programs with the designation of “center of excellence.”

In Nebraska, Bellevue University received the designation in 2012; the University of Nebraska at Omaha received it in 2017, and Metropolitan Community College earned it in 2018.

The need for cybersecurity experts is great, and the compensation is attractive, with cybercriminal investigators earning an average of $85,000 a year and cybersecurity architects, who design system concepts, averaging $129,000.

Business is soaring

Business is big at Creighton University, and a $20 million investment in the university’s business building will make it bigger. The expansion is in response to the influx of students interested in business — the most popular bachelor’s degree program at campuses nationwide.

Enrollment in undergraduate business programs at Creighton has grown from 648 students in 2010 to 1,129 last fall, or 74 percent. Creighton will carve out more room for the Heider College of Business through its renovation of the Harper Center, among other changes.

Scott Heider, the catalyst behind the Heider Foundation’s lead gift for the project, has said those who have planned this development want to excite students and faculty members.

It’s not about increasing enrollment, as much as it’s about offering a dynamic business program.

“There are so many employment opportunities in the area of business” that it’s hard to pass up, says Anthony Hendrickson, dean of the business college.

Completion is expected in 2020.

Sporting new majors

From a bevy of sports programs to hot new technology to promises of international travel, colleges are finding innovative ways to appeal to students.

Midland University in Fremont offers scholarships in more than 30 sporting activities, including shotgun, dance, hockey, powerlifting and esports (also known as video games).

President Jody Horner says the college must be “relentlessly relevant” to today’s students. “Standing still is not an option.”

Horner arrived in 2013, and Midland began offering competitive powerlifting a year later. Under her predecessor, now U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, scholarship-awarding activities such as men’s and women’s wrestling, shotgun sports, men’s and women’s bowling and competitive dance were added. In a contract with the Fremont Family YMCA, every full-time Midland student is automatically a Y member. Midland teams also practice there.

In November 2019, Midland will embark on a partnership with the Nebraska Attack girls basketball program. Many Attack players will be automatically guaranteed a Midland scholarship each year as long as they commit to play freshman year.

Midland also has a partnership with Methodist Fremont Health to share a high-fidelity simulation lab and equipment for nursing studies.

And it has a program with the Omaha Public Schools in which Midland provides a flexible program so that paraprofessionals can become teachers. For Horner, it’s all part of managing expectations and hitting home runs in a competitive market.

Biomechanics powerhouse

University of Nebraska at Omaha biomechanics boss Nick Stergiou returned to campus after commencement ceremonies last spring and watched the three-story addition to his Biomechanics Research Building taking shape. From virtually no biomechanics program 20 years ago to a booming enterprise that occupies two buildings in fall 2019, Stergiou and his staff have carried biomechanics beyond expectations. The department and its facilities stand at the intersection of ambition and financial backing.

“There’s no place in the world like their biomechanics facility,” Randolph Nudo, a professor of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center, has said of the UNO complex.

The program offers a bachelor’s degree, and UNO also has a doctorate in exercise science with a focus in biomechanics.

In 2014, Stergiou’s team won a $10.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish the Center for Research in Human Movement Variability. It’s the largest research grant UNO has ever received, and the infusion of funding brought a $6 million, 23,000-square-foot building.

The $11.6 million addition, with money from Omaha donors Ruth and Bill Scott, provides 30,000 square feet of space over three levels. Ruth Scott has said that she and her husband listened to Stergiou and “decided to gamble on his enthusiasm.”

The goal is to “make a difference in the lives of Nebraskans and others.”

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