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Fab labs help kids, communities learn and thrive

October 27, 2021
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The Southern Door County School District has received four grants totaling $100,000
through the Fab Labs Grant Program.

What began five years ago as a chance to involve school kids in science, technology, engineering, art and math has grown to engage an entire Door County community.

In that time, the Southern Door County School District has received four grants totaling $100,000 through the Fabrication Laboratories Grant Program administered by WEDC.

Known as “fab labs” for short, these facilities—outfitted with equipment such as high-tech 3D printers, laser cutters, robotic gear, vinyl cutters and computer-aided design software—are a powerful tool used by the district to arm students throughout the K-12 range with skills and concepts that are in high demand in a global economy.

Jessica Meacham, career technical education coordinator for the district, says the fab labs have ignited interest in science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) courses because students can take concepts and turn them into reality in the labs.

“Kids always enjoy working hands-on in passion projects,” says Meacham, who is also a 4K-5 STEAM teacher. “In the upper grades, they tend to do more of those passion projects because they have more voice and choice in how they use the equipment. We’ve seen an increase in class sizes in elective courses and we added a position in the high school to handle those numbers.”

Three-quarters of Southern Door’s high school students take a fab lab course prior to graduation.

Fifth-graders design and 3D print boats, testing them for buoyancy, capacity and stability. And middle schoolers work on projects such as classroom pass lanyards and 3D-printed doorstops.

Patti Vickman, the district’s recently retired superintendent, says the districtwide approach has built collaboration, cooperation, communication and critical thinking.

“The greatest thing that students have learned is to be out-of-the-box thinkers,” Vickman says. “The enthusiasm around the labs is sparking creative energy in both our students and our staff.”

The grants have enabled the district to make the labs available to all grade levels, but the technology and the district’s approach have also helped to build industry and community partnerships.

Southern Door has an advisory council made up of local businesspeople who regularly gather to discuss directions in technology and real-world workplaces. The district also sought advice from local manufacturers on how to set up the fab labs.

“We don’t want to be too far from our goals, and we want them to align with what’s happening in the real world, because our kids need that,” Meacham says. “We come away with a good knowledge of what’s happening in industry, and we foster good partnerships.”

For example, Sturgeon Bay-based coating firm Therma-Tron-X extended an invitation for students to attend an OSHA-10 training course and earn an industry-recognized credential, Meacham says.

“It’s been very important to us that we have a committed team, and that includes community representatives,” Vickman says. “Our board of education doesn’t want to just get a piece of equipment and put it in a lab and let kids use it. It’s a thoughtful plan that incorporates desired student outcomes and the needs expressed by the community.”

Prior to the pandemic, the district invited community members to periodically visit and work in the labs. High school students attended to help mentor participants at the well-attended sessions. Plans are for those sessions to continue when the virus subsides.

Vickman says students also used the fab labs to design and construct community-requested projects such as awards for the county fair, picnic tables for people with disabilities for the Lions Club and cornhole boards for a Big Brothers Big Sisters fundraiser.

The high-schoolers have also created trail markers for Potawatomi State Park and centerpieces for the annual senior citizens holiday party using the fab lab equipment.

In 2018, the district’s accomplishments in technical education and collaboration with local manufacturers received the Education Innovation Award from the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance.

WEDC has invested more than $3.4 million in the last six years to provide 95 public school districts across the state with the technology needed to build student skills and reach beyond the classroom to develop community partnerships aiding both students and Wisconsin employers.

After receiving its first $25,000 WEDC grant, the district was able to raise about $150,000 from local, state and national foundations. “Based on the success we had with the WEDC grant, we were able to continue growing our program,” Vickman says.

Applications for the coming round of grants are being accepted from Oct. 27, 2021, through Jan. 7, 2022.

The competitive grant program each year provides grants of up to $25,000 to public school districts or $50,000 to consortia of two or more districts for the creation and expansion of fab labs. Applicants must supply matching funds equal to at least 50% of the grant amount. Prior purchases of equipment cannot be counted toward the match amount.

Visit the program webpage for more information, including additional eligibility criteria and application details.

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