Knoxville Catholic dedicates STEM Innovation Lab

The Witsoe family and other donors receive thanks for making the ‘really exciting’ facility possible

By Gabrielle Nolan

A grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new, state-of-the-art STEM Innovation Lab took place at Knoxville Catholic High School on Jan. 9.

Students, teachers, faculty, families, and local media crews toured the newly renovated space, which measures nearly 2,500 square feet, where students can learn skills on industry-standard equipment.

Grayson Benton (left), Kailin McEnery, Terri James, and Chuck James stand next to last year’s Team 2393 Robotichauns competition robot. (Photo Gabrielle Nolan)

KCHS president Dickie Sompayrac welcomed a large crowd to the dedication.

“We’re so excited that you’re here. We are so excited for this space,” he said. “This idea came about when we made plans to build our auditorium. People started asking, what are you going to do with the old Blackbox Theatre? This was our old theater, that many of you know and probably have been to some plays in here. We knew we needed a spot for robotics, and that’s where it started, we wanted to give robotics a home. And that grew into, hey, let’s make this a little bit bigger.”

Mr. Sompayrac thanked Johnson Architecture and Rouse Construction for their involvement in building the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) lab.

He also thanked the donors who contributed to the lab, particularly the Witsoe family, for whom the lab is named.

“We met with Craig and Katie (Witsoe) sometime back, actually we were talking to them about the auditorium, and this was part of that project,” Mr. Sompayrac said. “At the end of our spiel we said we’re also doing an innovation lab which is going to be really exciting. We didn’t have that vision completely formed out, but I saw them kind of perk up a little bit. Craig started asking lots of questions about it, said he wanted to be a part of it, and we welcomed that. So, Craig and Katie, thank you for your involvement and helping us get here.”

“I do want to mention, there’s so many people, and I can’t mention all the donors, I do want to mention a few,” he continued. “Kevin and Jennifer Brinkmann for their role; their kids have been a part of the robotics program here, and they stepped up to help make this happen. Randy Burleson, many of you know Randy Burleson from Aubrey’s, he’s a great supporter of all schools. We’re proud to claim him because he’s an ’83 grad of Catholic High, but Randy stepped up. … John Croes, who couldn’t be here tonight, he’s another gentleman who has played a big role with his support for making this lab happen.”

Mr. Sompayrac acknowledged KCHS teacher Douglas Parris, who teaches STEM classes and runs the robotics program.

Diego Lopez-Toledo, Dr. Michael Kropilak, and Douglas Parris are pictured with the vertical band saw in the lab. (Photo Gabrielle Nolan)

“My philosophy in hiring people is you hire great people, and then you let them do what they do. Doug has been instrumental in helping us provide a vision for this space. He’s done a great job with robotics, he’s been a long-time math teacher, he’s taught physics here, he’s now teaching coding. But Doug’s influence is all throughout this lab, and I just want to thank Doug,” Mr. Sompayrac said, obtaining a round of applause.

“Also, I want to mention, I don’t want to take these guys for granted, we’ve got an awesome advancement team here at Knoxville Catholic… Joni Punch and Father Chris Michelson, just helping from day one with everything that goes into this, from fundraising to doing what it takes to make this place special. I’m grateful to you guys for your help and thank you so much. To Pam Rhoades, Megan Erpenbach, and the rest of our advancement team, Alison Ross, we’ve got an awesome team, and thank you guys for the good work that you do,” Mr. Sompayrac concluded.

Before the ribbon-cutting, Father Michelson, chair of the KCHS board of trustees and special adviser to the president, blessed the new space.

“By his own life, Jesus showed us the dignity and importance of human labor,” he prayed. “When Jesus became man, He was known as the carpenter’s son. By working with His earthly father, Jesus used His own hands to transform the earth to items that benefited others. So today, we ask your blessings to be with this STEM Innovation Lab, where students will transform their knowledge into the work of their hands to benefit others. Lord, we ask your blessing on all students who will learn and build here, on their teachers who will instruct and inspire here, and in a special way we ask your blessing on the Witsoe family for making this classroom and workshop a reality for Knoxville Catholic High. May God, who commanded us to help one another as brothers and sisters, bless this STEM lab with His presence and look kindly upon all who will enter here. May almighty God bless all of us gathered here today and all those who will enter this building in years to come. And may almighty God bless each of us in this room this day, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Mr. Parris was given the honor of cutting the ceremonial ribbon at the dedication.

He shared that he had direct involvement with the planning of the STEM Innovation Lab.

“I pretty much picked out the equipment or had one of our mentors help me pick out the equipment,” he said. “I was involved in the budgeting for it and what it was going to take, what the dream was basically, what we wanted in here, the workspace out there. I guess my main involvement would be purchasing agent—I was the one that made sure we had everything we wanted in the rooms and really to know what would give our kids the best shot at being ready for the next generation of jobs that are going to be out there.”

For Mr. Parris, the dedication of the new lab is “beyond words.”

“This is amazing,” he said. “To go from where we were and being so cramped and having so few tools to use to being able to see the kids build everything, design everything, see them see their vision from the electronic world into the physical world… I mean that’s our goal—the goal is that they leave here with a true understanding of what their mind can design and build and create… It’s beyond words. I’m just super pumped.”

KCHS senior Andrew Medlyn said that Mr. Parris is “amazing.”

“This whole thing is his brainchild, so he’s the driving force behind it,” he said. “He’s who got it done, and he’s who organized everything and made sure that we had the best equipment we could have.”

As captain of the robotics team, Andrew is excited to use the STEM lab regularly.

Father Chris Michelson leads the blessing of the KCHS Stem Lab. (Photo Gabrielle Nolan)

“Before this space existed, we were out in the fieldhouse, we were in a much smaller space, like half the size of this (lab) room. We didn’t have many machines, so anything that we wanted to custom-make we had to outsource and send it,” he said.

The presence of machinery, such as a 3-D printer, gives the students more hands-on experience than they previously had.

“It means that we can do everything in-house, so we’ll learn so much more, and then students will leave our program with the ability to get a good vocations job if they so choose,” Andrew said. “We’ll have a major advantage at any college.”

Mr. Witsoe, who is an engineer by training, explained why it was important for his family to become involved with the STEM Innovation Lab.

“It’s very much been part of our life, and we thought it was great for Knoxville Catholic to have a place where people interested in STEM could come together,” he said. “Usually, we have places for the sports teams, and you now have places for the theater, for the arts, and so this is a place for the kids interested in STEM. We’ve got a son and a daughter who are both mechanical engineers at UT right now. … And I can tell you, part of the reason they chose engineering was just what they learned from Doug Parris and his classes, so we wanted to be able to help pay some of that forward, and we’re just honored to be part of the program.”

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