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STEM Center planned in Lincolnton

The Block Smith Gym in Lincolnton has cleared another hurdle toward becoming an interactive museum and learning center.
The approximately 30,000 square-foot gym on East Rhodes Street would be transformed into the Lincoln County Science Center. The 21st-century nonprofit museum and education center would be open to visitors of all ages, with hands-on exhibits, labs and activities based around science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as the STEM fields.

The museum and learning center would host a variety of exhibits including robotics, LEGO building, a 3D theatre, a power plant control room, and a bubble lab.  “I think it will help students in the classroom because they’ll have a better understanding of our 21st-century problems in technology,” said Edward McFadden, an engineer at the McGuire Nuclear Station in Huntersville who is working to bring the science center to Lincolnton.

In 2012, McFadden founded the STEM Career Path Project, a nonprofit corporation that promotes STEM education through hands-on activities. As of fall 2016, about 3,000 kids and young adults participate in the program annually.  McFadden said the idea for the science center came about as an effort to narrow the county’s education gap between privileged and underprivileged children. He’s been working with Rhonda Hunter at Lincoln Economic Development Association and county commissioners to make the project a reality.

Area STEM-related companies would be able to promote their businesses inside of the proposed Lincoln County Science Center by creating and sponsoring exhibits that consist of hands-on activities related to their business. STEM-focused summer camps, an after-school program and teacher workshops would also be offered.  The Block Smith Gym, which is the former Lincolnton High School gymnasium, was dedicated in 1954 and named in honor of the late Charles “Block” Smith, a Lincolnton High coach and teacher.  The county has considered closing the gym in recent years due primarily to maintenance costs of the aging building. The gym is still lightly used, mostly as a walking space for senior citizens.

Earlier this month, McFadden received tentative approval for the project from Lincoln County’s Board of Commissioners. McFadden has requested a letter of intent from the county to sell the Block Smith Gym to his nonprofit organization at minimal cost within the next 18 months. The partnership would allow McFadden and his team to kick off their own fundraising efforts for the project through grants, corporate dollars and raising money in the community.
“He’s got a business plan laid out and fundraising plans and we are just looking at drawing up a contract that we can be comfortable with,” said Board of Commissioners Chairman Bill Beam.  Beam says the public will have the opportunity to weigh in on the proposed project, though commissioners have not yet determined when that public hearing may be.  He is optimistic the project could benefit the businesses the county is recruiting to the area and would get students interested in the technology-heavy jobs they need filled.  Block Smith Gym“All the industries we’re recruiting to come into Lincoln County are very technical jobs,” said Beam. “If we can help students to achieve those goals or spark an interest that would introduce them into making a living that would be wonderful.”