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HAMMOND — More than two decades after the last laps were swam in Bishop Noll Institute's former natatorium, the school's Whelan Activity Center took on new purpose.

In a $1.45 million overhaul, funded through the support of community donors and the Gary Diocese, the center was rededicated Thursday night as the Whelan Innovation Center — a new home for the Bishop Noll Institute STREAM Lab.

Complete with multiple 3D printers, a Makerspace and prototyping lab, and 30 computers equipped with AutoCAD engineering software, the facility will serve as a leading educational space in Northwest Indiana for teaching STEM curriculum.  

"There's no other STREAM lab, not only in the area but probably in the state, like it," said Brian Pillar, a Bishop Noll teacher and member of the school's "STREAM Team."

Bishop Noll Principal Lorenza Jara Pastrick first brought her vision for repurposing the former school natatorium, which was filled in nine years ago, after visiting similar programs in high schools in Indianapolis.

The original natatorium was included in the current school building's construction in 1962.

"All of this happened not by accident," Pastrick said. "It happened because it was supposed to happen at the right time, at the right moment."

School leaders first announced plans last year for the facility, funded through diocese capital project funds and the Bishop Noll Ignite & Inspire capital campaign.

The Catholic high school's "STREAM" curriculum combines the standard science, technology, engineering and mathematics fundamentals found in STEM education with an emphasis added on religion and arts.

With an approximately 90-student occupancy on the lower level, the new lab will take its first classes in January. 

Mary Albrecht of the Bishop Noll "STREAM Team" said the space was designed with the intention to allow students to see through projects from start to finish.

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Flexible furnishings allow for tabletops and seating to be cleared, creating space for large robotics projects.

The space can suit multiple groups of students in one class period and includes an upper-level study space in what used to be natatorium spectator seating.

"This really isn't a finished product," Albrecht said. "It's really a work in progress. We're hoping to expand our fields."

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The school currently offers computer programming and engineering classes using the Project Lead The Way curriculum.

The lab will allow Bishop Noll to pursue new programs in biomedical science and extracurricular app design, Pastrick said.

The school is also looking to start its first teams for high school students and younger in January.

The lab also includes several features highlighting the religion and art aspects of Bishop Noll's STREAM teachings.

Above the entrance of the Whelan Innovation Center hangs a nearly 90-year-old crucifix taken into Bishop Noll's care after the Holy Trinity Hungarian Catholic Church in East Chicago closed in 2016.

And, across the center, a 7-by-7 wood sculpture entitled "Guide us, St. Joseph" overlooks the STREAM lab. The artwork sculpted over nine months by Bishop Noll 1977 graduate Christopher Klocek features 1,082 pieces of wood of more than 20 different species from four continents.

The work, which was revealed at the ribbon cutting Thursday night, ties into Bishop Noll's curriculum depicting the six elements of STREAM.

"Our students deserve this space," Pastrick said. "If we can motivate students into these fields where it's their opportunity to be in the future, we have done our job for Northwest Indiana." 

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.