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June 20, 2019

Blues Ignite: Sparking Innovation at Asheville School and Beyond

Thomas Welding

Asheville School junior Thomas Blanco 2020 plans on studying engineering in college, although he hasn’t quite decided whether to pursue a career in mechanical engineering or aerospace engineering.

Earlier this year, he might have told you he was considering studying programming, or even toying with the idea of becoming an author. He was interested in the idea of engineering, but he had only watched videos about the field.

He couldn’t be sure it would be something he would actually enjoy.

That’s when Blanco signed up for Tinkering with Technology – an afternoon activity during which students have the chance to learn about all kinds of basic tech principles – from programming, to using software like the Adobe Creative Cloud, to actually engineering and bringing designs to life.

Asheville School has partnered with the University of North Carolina Asheville to establish the Asheville School Innovation Lab, a dedicated space in UNC Asheville’s River Arts Makers Place (RAMP) building.

There, UNC Asheville houses their Science Technology Engineering Art and Math (STEAM) Studio: a 12,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility that combines the latest tools in robotics, sculpture, fabrication, woodworking, design and engineering.

Tinkering With Tech Group

Asheville School students like Blanco now have the opportunity to employ their skills to create tangible objects using these tools. Learning from UNC Asheville seniors majoring in Mechatronics as well as university professors, they get hands-on experience in every step of the making process.

“It’s the perfect place for our engineering and technology students to have the ability to design and prototype their creative ideas,” says Asheville School Director of Communications Bob Williams, who leads the tech activities along with Asheville School Technology Director Charles Long.

“With this new partnership, the sky is the limit. We have the ability to see our creations go from a simple sketch to an actual prototype.”

The Asheville School Innovation Lab and STEAM partnership with UNC Asheville are only two parts of a new, larger Asheville School Initiative, Blues Ignite: Sparking Innovation at Asheville School and Beyond.

Blues Ignite aims to combine technology initiatives, the arts, and opportunities to engage with the broader Asheville community by providing opportunities to develop a myriad of cutting-edge skills in technology.

With funding from the E.E. Ford Foundation, the Stonecutter Foundation and other generous individuals, Blues Ignite allows Asheville School to enhance its existing technology initiatives and continue to expand programming.

“We’re very grateful to several Asheville School alumni and parents for supporting Blues Ignite,” said Williams. “We would not have received the E.E. Ford matching grant had it not been for the generous support of Mr. James Cowan 1963 and the Stonecutter Foundation. I am also extremely appreciative of Jim Fisher 1964, the Klump family and the Eckerd family for helping make this program a reality.”

Working to broaden partnerships in technology between Asheville School and UNC Asheville, students have more opportunities to work with professors and in the STEAM Studio during Asheville School’s popular App Development Summer Camp and in the school’s ongoing engineering, technology and computer science programs.

As the Blues Ignite program matures, other local public and private schools will also be invited to participate alongside Asheville School students in afterschool activities. Asheville School will also host training sessions for computer science educators who are interested in learning Apple’s Swift programming language.

“We’re excited to see how our new Innovation Lab will shape the future of STEAM at Asheville School and beyond,” said Williams. “We look forward to working even closer with UNC-Asheville to develop new learning opportunities for middle school students across the Asheville area.”

Now in its second year, Blues Ignite has already begun to inspire Asheville School students like Thomas Blanco.

He and the other Tinkering with Tech students have been working with UNC Asheville Mechatronics seniors, who are creating a visual sound table using the tools in the STEAM studio.

The visual sound table will be an interactive exhibit displayed at the Asheville Museum of Science upon its completion. When complete, someone can select a sound frequency from a display integrated into the table. The table will then automatically create an intricate pattern made of sand that corresponds with the frequency.

Interactive Sound Table

“Essentially, it’s an interactive touch screen,” said UNC Asheville student Ashley Young. “We are creating blocks that have patterns etched into them, which will interact with a Chladni Plate, so that when the sound changes frequencies, different patterns will emerge.”

While the UNC Asheville students are taking on the bulk of the programming and design of the table, Asheville School students have been helping them with a wide range of tasks to help complete the project.

“It’s been a good, collaborative process,” said UNC Asheville student Barrett Chesebrough. “It’s been awesome working with the high school students. I think it’s important to be exposed to things like this in high school. [Thomas] just started having an interest in mechanical engineering, and this is good exposure for him. It’s a creative process, and all the tools are right here – you just have to use them.”

While Blanco delved into welding and metal working, Tori Kim 2019 played an essential role in designing the patterns that are etched into acrylic blocks, which the sound table will use as a reference when creating patterns in sand.

“I do art, but I signed up for tech because they taught us how to use digital tools,” said Kim. “I was excited to use various mediums, so I wanted to get involved.”

Williams says it is this sentiment which will propel students who want to expand their interests by learning digital tools.

“The students used an open source program called Inkscape, combined with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, to design and laser cut some of the pieces for this project,” he said. “I love seeing their eyes light up when the designs they make virtually come to life on a laser cutter or during the prototyping process. It’s incredibly rewarding for me as someone who knows how important these STEAM skills will be for their future careers.”

Kim, who plans on majoring in art or design in college, and who won two national awards for her sketch art this year, says that tech has been invaluable to her college application process.

“I used the tools I learned while creating my portfolio,” she said. “I think learning these skills expands your vision. You get to see more things, and tech is compatible with other fields. I’m going to adapt these skills and use them in my artwork. Hopefully it will advance some of my pieces!”

Tori reaches in to a machine to retrieve a recently cut design plate

Because of Asheville School’s small size, technology programming can be tailored to the interests and levels of each group of students. Back on campus, they learn how to use Logic Pro, Reason, Garage Band and learn how to program and use Arduino boards.

Blues Ignite’s most important goal is to help students feel empowered by technology, says Charles Long.

“We want to build their confidence in software that will allow them to use these skills in any field,” he said. “We are helping them sort through the weeds – to figure out what they like and what they are interested in.”

With the skills learned through Blues Ignite programming, Asheville School students like Thomas Blanco and Tori Kim will head into college knowing more about who they are, what they love to do and how to succeed in today’s increasingly technological world.