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Fab labs build student competencies in Belleville schools

June 18, 2024
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Image of student operating Belleville Schools Fab Lab equipment

Fab lab builds student competencies in Belleville schools

Late teacher planted seeds of success

The fabrication laboratory (fab lab) at Belleville High School is more than a collection of high-tech machines used to propel discovery and critical thinking. That’s a tribute to the commitment of Ed Neumann, a dynamic and award-winning tech education and trades teacher who championed the idea and set Belleville schools on the path to fab-lab learning.

Neumann died unexpectedly on Christmas Day in 2022, at age 46, during a deer-hunting trip. Today, the legacy of the man who advocated for the lab and engineered two of the district’s three WEDC Fab Labs grants—for a combined $44,600—is being carried forward by enthusiastic faculty and administrators.

“Ed will be remembered for his dedication to and belief in his students,” says Belleville Superintendent of Schools Nate Perry. “Ed would always learn along with his students. He’d try to learn the machines before his students, but often he’d refer questions to a 16-year-old, because they were the expert.”

Fab labs open new frontiers

Today, Nico Berthelon, Neumann’s energetic successor, advances that legacy, connecting trades to academics, entrepreneurship, and success in life.

“Even if our kids don’t go into this field, the fab lab helps build an understanding of math and an appreciation for problem-solving and troubleshooting,” Berthelon says. “It opens their minds to new ways of doing things.”

Image of Belleville mascot etched into wood panel

Using Fab Lab equipment, Belleville students etched their mascot into wood panel

Fab labs are generally outfitted with high-tech 3D printers, computerized routers, laser cutters, robotic gear, and computer-aided design software. Using these tools, students gain real-world tech skills and build their critical thinking capacities.

In addition to using the equipment in trades classes, the high school has created a Wildcat Manufacturing class. In the class, students take engineering and trades concepts and manufacture items that are sold in the community, with proceeds helping to fund trades education. They’ve produced Christmas ornaments, Adirondack chairs, campfire log grabbers, planter boxes, and custom orders for signs and trophies.

“There’s a lot of value in getting them career-ready,” says Erik Farrar, the district’s business manager. “It’s an opportunity to be creative, be able to make mistakes, learn from that, and move forward to plan bigger projects.”

The district is also part of Project Lead the Way, a program that aligns with Next Generation Science standards. Rebecca Johnson, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said the K-12 program exposes students to engineering and science concepts.

“Our discovery teacher at the elementary school uses Project Lead the Way plus the fab lab to get our students started in coding, engineering, and building to try to boost the interest,” she says. “So, as they continue through our system, we have continued excitement in our fab lab.”

“There’s a lot of value in getting them career ready. It’s an opportunity to be creative, be able to make mistakes, learn from that and move forward to plan bigger projects.”

Erik Farrar

Business Manager, School District of Belleville

Hands-on experience in the real world

Access to the high-tech gear enables students to grow their skills and deploy them into the workforce. Three Belleville High School students have youth apprenticeships at Kelsch Machine Corp., applying the skills they’ve gained in the lab.

“Businesspeople know that these students have a supervisor at school who’s always checking on them, and they know what they’re getting as a youth apprentice in terms of work ethic and attitude,” Perry says. “And students can decide if this is something they want to do as a career.”


Schools District:

Expand fab lab experience and exposure to technology for all grade levels

State support:
Three Fab Labs Grants—in 2021, 2022, and 2023—through WEDC

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