MERCEDES — Everything about the new 30,000-square-foot building here at South Texas Independent School District is about exposure, from the large classroom windows leading to hallways to a nearly wall-less giant lab right in the middle of the building containing industrial-sized equipment.

“This is like a library, but instead of books there are tools,” said Nelly Houston, who graduated from the academy in 1997 and now teaches engineering to new generations. “The goal is that little by little we will have workshops, classes… in the perimeter there are work areas and there’s all windows. There’s barely any walls, there’s mostly windows so that students can look in and ask, ‘What are they doing? Can I do that?’”

The entire design is meant to allow all students to look at each other’s work to get ideas and even encouragement from the process.

The district broke ground on the new building in November 2017, and it was dedicated as the new Ruben Hinojosa Science Academy Innovation Lab this weekend in honor of the former congressman who represented the region at the House of Representatives for 20 years.

The total cost of the building itself was about $5 million.

This is the first semester of students occupying the new classrooms, and the teachers are enthusiastic about the new lab area, aiming to afford these high schoolers a leg up in the game by introducing them to equipment they might not otherwise see until college or in the workforce.

“The only way I had access to this equipment was through internships with companies,” Houston said. “Even at the university at the bachelor’s level, a lot of it is theoretical. Yes, you do labs, but it’s not the real deal. So here we have the equipment that companies have, that make parts, that manufacture equipment… and the kids are going to have access to this.”

Students can now begin to learn how to use the lab equipment like CNC mills, CNC metal bending machines, tool sharpeners, drills, band saws and welding equipment, among many others.

While in the classroom they also have an industrial setting in which they are encouraged to move around, create, and even peek through the windows to see what their classmates are working on.

“We can now manipulate different types of materials, from plastics, woods, metals,” said Ricardo Rodriguez, foundation engineering teacher at the South Texas ISD Science Academy. “We are able to make the students connect something that they have here onto not just the computer but turning it into a 3D (product).”

The switch from theory to practice is an important one, most teachers at the academy said, as they want the students to learn early on about the importance to have the hands-on skills.

It is not the same to design a product in your mind or on a computer to executing it not only as imagined, but as something functioning in the real world, said Dale Coalson, civil engineering and architecture teacher.

A group of about five teachers and their program leader James Mills, who taught 20 years at UT Tyler, had a wishlist for the building and input in its creation. They all echoed the sentiment of aiming to give the students as much exposure as they could early on.

“It’s amazing,” said 17-year-old student Amit Bhatta, adding his favorite spot so far is the makerspace. “I want to experience using all of these machines because a lot of the entry jobs use these machines, so if you know how to use them it’s like a leg up on the competition.”