In The News

Universal Foundation Supports High School Fab Lab to Train Tomorrow’s Engineers, Designers

Mike Connor was on on vacation in northern Wisconsin about five years ago when he was paging through the St. Paul Pioneer Press and saw a fascinating story about the Mahtomedi Fab Lab in the Minnesota town’s high school.

Connor, a former mechanical engineer with many years of experience, was on the grant team for the Cummins Foundation and had been looking for a new project to fund. He contacted those who run the school’s Fab Lab, and they were happy to help Connor bring a Fab Lab to Stoughton High School, in the hometown of UniversalAET’s headquarters in southern Wisconsin.

Today, Stoughton High School’s Fab Lab – where Connor serves as a staff volunteer – has been open for two years. It’s a place where tomorrow’s generation of engineers and designers are experimenting with machinery, tools and technology to transform ideas through innovation and creativity. The school’s Fab Lab is one of the few in the country to be housed in a high school and be part of the school curriculum. In the lab, students can create just about anything using machinery – a three-dimensional (3D) printer, a vinyl cutter, an Epilog laser cutter/engraver, a milling machine and a computer-guided router, plus more. Students apply science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts to the process of creating items in the lab using these tools.

UniversalAET’s charitable arm, the Universal Foundation, has provided funding to the local Fab Lab because it’s important to invest in the future generation of engineers and designers, as well as help youth gain problem-solving skills that will later apply in the workforce and in life, said UniversalAET President and Chief Operating Officer Dick Strojinc.

We’re very appreciative of the generosity of the Universal Foundation and just couldn’t do it without them,” Connor said.

The Fab Lab concept began at MIT as an educational component of the school’s Center for Bits & Atoms, and its research into digital fabrication and computation. There are more than 400 Fab Lab facilities in the U.S. today, most often located on college campuses, in schools and in libraries.

Madison, Wis. – just 20 minutes from Stoughton – is a hotbed of activity for the “maker” movement, a technology-based extension of the do-it-yourself culture, and having that community nearby provides a wealth of talented people and businesses for Stoughton’s Fab Lab to drawn on.

“We’re kind of like a maker program on steroids,” Connor said.

The Fab Lab model’s success depends on mentoring and the sharing of information. For instance, a maker who works in screenprinting demonstrates his or her skills and passes on that knowledge base to lab users. All of the Fab Labs throughout the world are linked online, and lab users can communicate with each other through video equipment. There’s a live news feed in each lab, too, so users can always see what’s happening in Fab Labs internationally.

Stoughton’s Fab Lab recently began community workshops a few times a month for fourth- through eighth-graders who attend with an adult, and it has an open house four times a year. The open houses tend to draw other school districts’ administrators and teachers, as well as staff from Department of Corrections, who hope to start their own Fab Labs for students and incarcerated individuals, Connor said.

The Universal Foundation grant specifically funds the expanded hours, including evenings and weekends, for community time during the school year, Connor said. It will also allow the lab to train two more teachers to oversee work being done in the Fab Lab.

The two-hour Start Smart, Start Small community workshops series exposes students to the machinery, then they build something to take home, Connor said. Last year, the projects were a paper airplane launcher that involved a battery and a switch, and a flip light that includes making a circuit and putting it inside a small jar; when you flip it over, the light turns on. Other projects include silk screen printing and a night light that projects onto the wall.

“The community seems to like what we’re doing,” Connor said. “They’ve been asking for more. We’re moving toward what this community wants from us.”

High school students may take two courses: one an introductory class with predetermined scanning, 3-D printing, molding, casting and building projects, and the second a looser curriculum based on the student’s interest. Connor is working on integrating more art, science and physics into the Fab Lab for the next school year.

“The kids are graded on what they learned, what failed, what worked and what didn’t,” he said. “We’re really trying to teach them to fail up. That’s really the key … problem-solving. If they can learn problem-solving skills early, that’s a really good thing that employers want.”

Another goal is to attract more female students to take high school Fab Lab courses, as well as younger girls to take the community workshops in hopes of shifting the male-dominated engineering field.

“It’s a huge problem and we know it,” Connor said. “We know from experience that the Fab Lab attracts students who don’t think of themselves as engineers. Female participation has increased since it opened, but it’s still low … about 20 percent. It’d be really nice to be at 50 percent.

“I don’t want to turn them all into engineers; I just want to expose them to it. STEM is gender-neutral. Technology is gender-neutral.”

Since the Stoughton Fab Lab opened, it has doubled in size as well as in the number of students it serves, Connor said. It has added three new printers, a new design center and another milling machine that makes circuit boards, plus the ShopBot that was in the school’s wood shop was moved into the lab.

The Fab Lab will be open during summer school this year for fifth- through eighth-grade students, and sessions are already booked, Connor said. The lab employs four high school students to teach the courses, with support from student volunteers.

Local businesses and entrepreneurs also stand to benefit from Stoughton’s Fab Lab, too, because the facility can use the equipment at no cost, and students may make prototypes for them through partnerships.

“We have a lot of technology that’s brand new that smaller companies can’t afford or aren’t aware of yet, so one of the things we are going to do for some of them is to experiment with this new technology without any risk for them,” Connor said. “What we’d like to do more of with our partners is how do we take a person with some skills – say, a welder, an accountant, etc. – and help them learn their industry so they know the business, the products, the services?”

The Fab Lab is currently making small prototypes of trailers for Stoughton Trailers so new employees can put them together like a puzzle during onboarding to help them quickly understand the product’s components.

“This (partnership) really gets the student engaged in industry, and gets the industry engaged in the Fab Lab, Connor said. “It’s win-win.”

Connor puts a great deal of time into the Stoughton High School Fab Lab, but it’s all worth it for him. He said the lab “found me.”

“It’s my passion and just really fun for me,” he said.

Learn more about the Stoughton High School Fab Lab on its website, and in this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.