Two sixth-graders spend numerous mornings in a classroom at Prairie Queen Elementary School, studying technology and troubleshooting 3-D printer issues.

They and their classmates at Prairie Queen, along with High Ability Learner students throughout the district, are busy at work on year-long projects they’ve chosen themselves.

Earlier this month, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a proclamation, naming this week Week of the Gifted Child in Nebraska, but the students have been hard at work on their “passion projects” all year, in addition to other coursework.

“They all choose their different interests and passions, areas they want to learn more about,” said Laurie Earnest-Little, one of the district’s High Ability teachers.

To begin, students generated a list of ideas and topics that they were interested in.

“We had a few weeks to generate ideas and then narrow it down,” said Maddie Sheets, a student who is using a micro processor and 3-D printer to create and control a robot. “We picked things we didn’t really know a lot about. I really enjoy tech and I wanted to learn a technology that I wasn’t really too familiar with. I thought it would be really cool to make a robot.”

Cooper Cook, another sixth-grade HAL student at Prairie Queen, said he didn’t have a specific idea set in stone, but instead happened upon one.

“I found out my cousin’s friend actually needed a prosthetic,” Cooper said. “I can actually use what I know to help someone.”

He will also use the 3-D printer to create a plastic filament for the hand. He will modify the prosthetic so that it is child size and will use fishing line that resembles tendons so the hand can move, controlled by different movements in the wrist muscle.

“I’ve been studying prosthetics and I’m actually going to make one,” Cooper said. “Prosthetics are mainly expensive but with a 3-D printer they can be made and cost a lot cheaper.”

Earnest-Little said that both students have spent numerous hours problem solving and using critical thinking to troubleshoot issues they have had with the printer. “Like with anything you do, you run into problems,” Earnest-Little said.

Maddie said so far, she has been able to make a light run and a motor move through her work with an Arduino board, the micro processor that will help her design and print the pieces of her robot, as well as program her robot.

She said she loves her HAL class and project because she gets to learn about things she really enjoys that she would not otherwise study in school.

“I like futuristic technology,” she said. “It’s really interesting to get to learn about it and actually use it.”

Cooper said he really enjoys HAL because he feels like he is getting a head start, gaining lifelong skills and knowledge in a field that he would like to study in high school and possibly even work in.

Both students seemed very excited about the possibility of one day working in the tech field.

“They really are essentially engineers, it’s really engineer and design process,” Earnest-Little said.

Much of the technology and supplies are provided through a grant from the Papillion-La Vista Schools Foundation. Earnest-Little said that without the foundation’s grant, they simply wouldn’t have the resources they need.

“The experience they’re getting and the knowledge, we’ve really got to have the top technology,” Earnest-Little said.

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