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Drexel Engineer Creates Learning Space for Future STEM Innovators

James Lill, a Drexel alumnus and professor, is leading the Downingtown Area School District through the start-up of the facility that currently houses the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Academy for more than 400 students. The building, which was originally constructed in 1932, reopened August 29, 2011. Lill is part of a national movement to modernize curriculum and create the future leaders of tomorrow through a state-of-the-art facility.

November 2, 2011

STEM LOUNGESleek tables and chairs are neatly arranged in a crisp, white lounge area with gray accents on the walls. Peering down from a state-of-the-art classroom with Macbooks in front of them is a group of students, the future leaders of STEM. As Lill stands in the lounge area and looks up at the classroom, he envisions the future of the facility and the young men and women who will pass through its halls.

“Seeing the students in here on a daily basis brings life and excitement to this building. I see all of the work in putting the facility together go to great use. It’s a rewarding feeling,” says Lill, Director of Facilities, Planning and Management for the Downingtown Area School District.

Lill, a graduate of both Drexel’s Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Management programs, is now an adjunct professor in Engineering Management. He has applied his project management skills to guide Downingtown’s developing STEM Academy through the final phases of construction and the opening of the school. Lill leads efforts to maintain the everyday operations of the facility and to repurpose the more than 75-year old building to accommodate movement of students from other overcrowded schools of this district into the new building.  Lill’s approach to repurposing the building in less than 10 months was a unique one since he is able to utilize his background at Drexel University, which has a reputation of being a leader in the integration of technology into academics.

“There is always the challenge of the unknown in an existing building. We’re doing some creative thinking in terms of fitting into spaces that more than 75 years ago weren’t intended to be used for this,” says Lill.

Lill came on board in June to ensure the facility met the needs of the modernized curriculum. He was sought out by the School District administration for his experience in engineering and facilities management which spans almost twenty years. The STEM Academy is an effort by the district to offer specialized education in subject areas where careers are plentiful and employers often go wanting.

Currently, more than 4oo students are enrolled in the Academy which is open to grades nine and 10. When enrollment opened up, more than 800 students applied. Within three years, the Academy will include grades nine to 12 with more than 800 students. This magnet school utilizes an effort-based evaluation process to select students and all applicants are required to submit essays and a recommendation. The STEM Academy itself is a call to action from President Obama’s State of the Union in January 2011 placing an emphasis on the importance of STEM education in today’s economy.

“There are a lot of areas that a STEM education can direct you to; it’s not just engineering. I’m curious to see where the first graduating class goes in terms of their next steps. There’s a real demand for STEM and I’m excited to be a part of the initiative,” says Lill.  “It hits home.”