Employees of Forth Floral in Rhinelander wear masks produced with 3D printers in the Hodag Fab Lab.

Over the past five years, WEDC has invested more than $2.8 million to help 77 school districts across the state create and equip fabrication laboratories (fab labs) that support hands-on education in the science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) subject areas.

Even with the pandemic and uncertainty around instructional models in the fall, a new round of Fab Labs Grants was announced this spring, awarding more than $690,000 to 31 school districts.

These grants are long-term investments in equipping Wisconsin students with crucial skills for the workforce, notes Governor Tony Evers.

“Fab labs remain one of the best ways for students to gain experience in the high-tech manufacturing jobs where Wisconsin leads,” Governor Evers said in May when the new round of grants were announced. “During the current coronavirus crisis, when we’ve needed quick turnaround for protective gear and other medical devices, those manufacturers have become even more important to our state.”

In fact, some of the school-based fab labs have helped produce items needed for the state’s COVID-19 response, such as face shields and masks. Rhinelander High School, under the guidance of faculty member Mike Wojtusik, is one of these.

Although schools were closed and the fab lab was closed to the public, Hodag Fab Lab Director Mike Wojtusik used the equipment to produce masks that can be reused by changing the filter.

As 3D printable and design files have become available free of charge for public use, fab labs across the state have made use of them to produce items including the “Montana Mask,” a face protector that can be sanitized and reused, with a customizable level of protection depending on the material used for the filter. Once schools closed in early March, Wojtusik used the equipment to make masks for faculty, custodial staff and other community members in need, producing 25 of the specialized masks per day for several weeks.

“I didn’t want to look back months later and wish that we had done something more,” says Wojtusik. “We had the tools and resources here to help out, so that’s what we decided to do.”

The Wisconsin Fabrication Laboratories (Fab Labs) Grant Program is designed to support hands-on science, technology, arts and math (STEAM) education. The Fab Lab environment enables students to learn the skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century economy and serves as a local economic development tool by connecting students to local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Fab labs are high-technology workshops equipped with computer-controlled manufacturing components like 3D printers, laser engravers, computer numerical control routers and plasma cutters. WEDC’s Fab Labs Grant Program supports the purchase of fab lab equipment for elementary, middle, junior high and high school students.

The following school districts were awarded Fab Labs Grants in May:

  • Merrill Area Public Schools, $15,000
  • School District of Brown Deer, $25,000
  • Mellen School District, $24,500
  • Rice Lake Area School District, $25,000
  • School District of Beloit Turner, $25,000
  • Milwaukee Public Schools, $25,000
  • School District of Abbotsford, $15,000
  • School District of Mauston, $15,000
  • New Lisbon School District, $9,700
  • Somerset School District, $25,000
  • Waupun Area School District, $25,000
  • Pewaukee School District, $25,000
  • School District of Poynette, $23,900
  • Elmbrook Schools, $25,000
  • School District of Drummond, $13,200
  • Wauwatosa School District, $25,000
  • School District of Mondovi, $25,000
  • Oshkosh Area School District, $25,000
  • Washington Island School District, $25,000
  • Eau Claire Area School District, $25,000
  • School District of Omro, $25,000
  • Coleman School District, $25,000
  • School District of Random Lake, $25,000
  • Union Grove Union High School District, $25,000
  • Elkhart Lake-Glenbeulah School District, $22,200
  • Lake Holcombe School District, $25,000
  • School District of New Berlin, $19,000
  • Cedarburg School District, $25,000
  • Elkhorn Area School District, $13,500
  • School District of Mishicot, $22,200
  • Westby Area School District, $25,000

“Fab labs benefit not only the students themselves with important technology and career skills, but they also benefit Wisconsin employers, who will be able to find workers with the right skills to allow their companies to grow and thrive,” says WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes.