Students in Kimball explore new dimensions thanks to visionary educator

Although she was a life-long educator and a world traveler, Shirley Kreutz Bennett could have never imagined — back in 2002 — the rapid advance of 3-D printing technology, much less, that children would be capable of creating their own 3-D objects.

This was the dark ages before YouTube, Facebook and iPhones; but Shirley Kreutz Bennett had her eyes on the future. She wanted to give people living in small communities, like her hometown of Harvard, Nebraska, access to a world of fascinating information.

She accomplished her dream by creating an endowment to provide funding to enhance public libraries in communities with fewer than 3,000 people.

After graduating from Harvard High School in 1941, Shirley Kreutz Bennett earned a BA from the University of Washington, plus an MA and PhD from Columbia University. She was a professor of education at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. When she died in 2009, her nieces and nephews agreed to carry out their Aunt Shirley’s wishes by meeting annually to distribute grants from the endowment she created through Nebraska Community Foundation.

Today, and for years into the future, Shirley Kreutz Bennett will be helping small-town libraries with grants up to $20,000, providing tools to navigate a world of new information and creativity.

One of those libraries is in Kimball, Nebraska, located about 20 miles from the Wyoming border, just north of I-80. With a population of 2,496 people, Kimball is just small enough to be eligible for a grant from the Kreutz Bennett Donor-Advised Fund.

A couple years ago, an energetic young woman named Jamie Carpenter stepped up to the opportunity. At the time, Carpenter was the cataloguing and technical service librarian for Kimball Public Library. She believed it was important for rural communities to take advantage of emerging technologies.

“I wanted to show the community that libraries today are more than just books. There are so many other resources,” Carpenter said.

Her most ambitious effort was introducing 3-D design and printing to students and entrepreneurs in the Kimball area. Thanks to a Kreutz Bennett grant, along with additional support from NCF’s Howard and Peggy Atkins Donor-Advised Fund, Carpenter was able to launch the project. Grants to the library enabled her to purchase a Flashforge Creator Pro 3-D printer, several colors of plastic filament, and 10 small Chromebooks.

“It’s important for rural communities to offer these kinds of opportunities to students and local entrepreneurs. This project was a way for me to personally contribute to the community,” Carpenter said.

“We wanted to stir up some interest,” Howard Atkins said. “Get people thinking: ‘What can I do? What can we do together? How can Kimball be more viable and attractive?’”

Introducing 21st century technology to the community was one way to get people thinking. Carpenter spent the spring and early summer months of 2015 learning and experimenting with the new equipment. In July, she conducted a four-day student “maker camp” in the library for two girls and five boys in grades seven through 10.

“They were very excited to work with the technology. No one had any drafting experience, but they quickly learned how to design 3-D objects using a simple online 3-D design and printing tool,” Carpenter said.

3-D printing at Kimball Public Library

An ambitious effort introduced 3-D design and printing to students and entrepreneurs in the Kimball area.

Carpenter had hopes of working with the school, which offered at least one computer aided drafting class. The printer could also become part of the after-school program to ignite the imagination of younger children.

Finally, she wanted to connect with business people and entrepreneurs and offer workshops for adults. Using the 3-D printer would be free, with users paying only for the plastic.

Several months after her first maker camp, Jamie Carpenter resigned her position at the library and Becky Lowery took over. Previously, Lowery taught reading in the junior high grades. She stopped teaching to spend more time with her two young children, but when the opportunity at the library came up, she said she couldn’t say no.

“This was Jamie’s baby. It was an honor – and a bit intimidating – to take this on after all her work on it! I’ve always loved computers, but I didn’t know a thing about 3-D printing,” Lowery said.

Neither did Shari Lindgren, the computer and technology teacher at Kimball Junior-Senior High School, but she participated in one of the library’s adult 3-D workshops and quickly became interested in forming a collaboration.

Early this year, Lindgren’s eighth grade students spent a couple weeks in class designing three-dimensional creations using Tinker Cad software at the school. “It’s easy to work with, free, and you just set up an account and turn the kids loose,” Lindgren said. “The kids enjoyed the class. They came up with some really creative ideas. But for some, developing the project idea was harder than actually designing the creation,” said Lindgren.

After the designs are completed, their files are taken to the library for printing. Some of the projects are huge, requiring hours of printing. Becky Lowery admits that, now and then, she has had to return to the library after closing hours to check on the progress. She works only limited hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so printing for the most recent class of 32 students took about three months to complete. She was just finishing up the last student’s project in mid-May.

Once the projects were designed and the files transferred, the kids were eager to get to the library to see the printer in action. “The library has been very helpful. It is great that this opportunity was extended to the school. And it’s good to build awareness of how we can work together,” said Lindgren.

“One of the best things is that it has brought the students into the library. This is an age group that does not visit the library regularly, but this project has gotten them in the door,” Lowery said.

The Kimball Public Library also offers an afterschool program for kindergarten through third graders, and it continues offering a maker camp for teens every summer and a workshop for adults each fall.

Most of Jamie Carpenter’s hopes for her 3-D project have materialized and have been embraced by a growing number of children and adults. In Nebraska, big dreams are at work in small places.

That is something Shirley Kreutz Bennett could easily imagine.

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