Robert Tolomeo – Broken Arrow Public Schools
From farm animals and drones to striking architecture and on-site input from students, the new STEM facility at Broken Arrow Public Schools in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, is designed to educate—for life.
Built in the Oklahoma soil and surrounded by 80 acres of usable land, the main building is a split-level design constructed to make the best use of outdoor space. Most of the first floor is buried in a hill, while the second floor juts off at an angle, overhanging a long boulevard-style open-air space.
According to Bob Tolomeo, the district’s executive director of construction services, the facility will house programs ranging from vocational agriculture to drone mapping. Tolomeo expects to be moving furniture and farm animals in by the spring of 2021, with students arriving in August.
The state-of-the-art STEM facility will serve as a flagship of BAPS and firmly cement the district’s commitment to STEM education.
“We’re making everything a learning experience, from the construction of the building to ongoing management, and will be continually coming up with fresh ways to innovate and educate,” Tolomeo says. “From building signage to greenhouses, we’re looking to stretch the physical and mental boundaries of education with this facility.”
BIM to STEM
There are a lot of moving parts to what BAPS is currently calling the STEM Innovation Academy, Oklahoma’s first public school facility to integrate building information modeling from the design process all the way through construction and as-builts.
Known as BIM, the tool enhances coordination and reduces errors by creating a holistic picture of the facility—helpful on a property that will use the latest in tech and for students looking to understand the process behind building and managing a large-scale facility.
Tolomeo is accustomed to managing multiple projects, so it’s all in a day’s work—though there’s plenty to set the SIA apart. This includes the dramatic and environmentally responsible design, the integration of drone piloting into the curriculum and a well-designed vocational agriculture facility.
In addition to agriculture, students will learn about architecture, construction, engineering, life science and much more. Each student determines the scope of their studies. The goal, he says, is to give students a voice in their own academic and professional destiny.
“Technology is always changing and so is the job market, so you have to trust the people around you,” Tolomeo says. “In this case that includes district administration, teachers, students, contractors and the list goes on. If this becomes just a building, I’ve failed. This project is the underpinning of a new kind of community within BAPS.”
The facility is part of a twelve-year bond issue to drive innovation across the district, including renewable energy initiatives and other learning experiences for 19,000-plus students. The bond has also funded projects at other schools in the district, like wind turbines and solar panels at a new elementary school.
Let loose the drones
Classes at SIA will be part of the district’s high school programming, with students shuttling between the new facility and the high school.
“Project-based learning is a boon for some students,” Tolomeo says. “This facility will give students the ability to chart their own educational course to achieve their professional goals sooner rather than later.”
One example of the interplay between the facility, students and future careers: an on-staff drone pilot has been mapping the property down to the last water pipe while also creating educational content and a drone pilot curriculum.
Students, or anyone, will be able to take a virtual tour of the building while wearing a headset. BAPS has partnered with Flintco Construction to train students on the synergy between drone photography and construction work.
“We’re creating curriculum based on real-world experiences,” Tolomeo says. “If you start flying a drone and get in enough hours and training, you can make money on that straight out of high school.”
In addition, young architects, engineers and construction managers will be able to follow their vocation, if they so choose, and get a head start in fields that are becoming increasingly complex and technical.
Animal farm of the future
Still, the school hasn’t strayed far from its agricultural roots. Vocational agriculture has long been a major area of focus in Oklahoma, and SIA is no exception.
Not only is the new facility only a quarter mile from the high school; the space—which houses three barns for different types of animals—allows students to participate in a working farm.
Students will also learn different methods of agricultural management. Teachers can rope off certain pieces of land, for instance, allowing students to study it and make recommendations, be it growing corn or grazing animals.
“We talked to the ag students and staff and teachers, what they needed and wanted, where the program is going in the next few years,” Tolomeo says. “The architects listened to what we wanted and how we function, then worked with us to design the building around our wants and needs.”
Ultimate project-based project
Pulling off the project took a lot of one specific ingredient: collaboration. For Tolomeo, it’s a continuation of his mission to make construction about more than bricks and mortar.
A graduate of BAPS himself, Tolomeo went on to gain a bachelor’s degree in construction management technology at Oklahoma State University and started working for the school district in 2011, only a couple of years after college.
He went on to earn a Master of Engineering Technology degree from Pittsburg State University and is using his educational experience these days to both give back to his hometown and look forward when it comes to facilities and community.
“When I left Broken Arrow for college, I didn’t think I was coming back, but then all the pieces fit into place and you realize home is a good place to be,” Tolomeo says. “I face new challenges every day, and that’s exactly why I love my job.”
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