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Technology sparks a district-wide fab lab initiative

June 18, 2024
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Southern Door schools go all-in on fab labs

Jessica Meacham, who helped engineer the start of fabrication laboratory (fab lab) learning in the Southern Door County School District, can’t imagine today what life as a teacher would be like without them.

“I wouldn’t have predicted that my career would change from a first-grade teacher to a STEM teacher working in a fab lab,” Meacham says. “Before we had the labs, I incorporated technology into my classroom and offered a lunchtime tech club for elementary students.”

The club was so popular and engaging that Meacham’s principal felt that technology learning should be available more broadly. The district applied for, and received, WEDC Fab Labs Grants in 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2021. The grants, totaling $100,000, were matched by the district to create fab labs in the high school, middle school, and elementary school.

Igniting discovery and learning

Outfitted with high-tech 3D printers, laser cutters, robotic gear, vinyl cutters, and computer-aided design software, the fab labs help students build critical thinking skills and learn about technologies used in the real world.

Southern Door students in the school's fab lab.

Kids at the Southern Door Elementary School work on miniature skate parks they designed and build with the help of technology in the school’s fab lab.

“In the fab lab, kids are taking part in experiential learning,” says Meacham. “They are asked to be curious and given permission to try and fail in a team-based environment. They have to work in a team because it mimics the real-world environment.”

High schoolers have used the equipment to create trail markers for Potawatomi State Park and centerpieces for an annual holiday party for senior citizens. Fifth-graders have created 3D-printed boats and tested them for buoyancy, capacity, and stability. And middle schoolers work on projects such as classroom pass lanyards and 3D-printed doorstops. Recently, Meacham’s elementary students used the technology to design and build scaled-down skateboard parks, complete with electronic circuitry, for miniature skateboards called “fingerboards.”

“Their skate parks were table-sized, and we invited visitors in to try out the fingerboards and navigate the obstacles that the kids created,” she says.

At the high school, about three-quarters of students take a fab lab course prior to graduation.

“Kids always enjoy working hands-on in passion projects,” says Meacham. “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.”

“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.”

Jessica Meacham

STEM Teacher, Southern Door County School District

Building partnerships with industry

Image of Jessica Meacham

Jessica Meacham, STEM Teacher

The fab labs are powerful tools used by the district to introduce 4K-12 students to skills and concepts that are in high demand in a global economy. Southern Door has an advisory council made up of local businesspeople who regularly gather to discuss directions in technology and workplaces. The district also sought advice from local manufacturers on how to set up the fab labs.

Educators often ask manufacturers what skills and attributes they are seeking for their workforces.

“The No. 1 thing they say they’re looking for are soft skills, along with creativity, collaboration and critical thinking,” Meacham says. “The fab labs give students opportunities to work in situations that mirror the real world and develop those skills.”

Meacham says the partnerships keep schools focused on important outcomes and industry trends: “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.”


School District:
Southern Door County

Teach kids in all grades the value of technology in a STEM curriculum and in careers

State support:
Four Fab Labs Grants supporting technology purchases

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