Fab Labs take hands-on learning to new heights

North High School’s Fab Lab not only features a variety of mechanical equipment but all of the computers and software to make those machines workAlison Olson-Enamorado sits at a computer, working on a project in an elective class at North High School in North St. Paul. While this is an ordinary scene taking place in schools across the country, what makes Olson-Enamorado’s project unusual is that when she is done, she will have built her own 3-D printer and will be able to take it home.

Olson-Enamorado is taking a class in her high school’s Fab Lab, short for fabrication laboratory.

Fab Labs are generally equipped with an array of flexible computer-controlled tools that cover several different length scales and various materials. They began as an outreach project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), aimed at bringing physical science, computer science and the development of digital materials.

North High School Fab Lab teacher Dave Moran works with students who have been using the 3D printersSchools around Minnesota are starting to build Fab Labs as a piece of their STEM curriculum, as well as their industrial arts programs.

“We combine the traditional shop class with the Fab Lab,” said Dave Moran, who teaches Fab Lab classes at North High School.

Moran’s lab includes 3-D printers, laser engravers and cutters, vinyl cutters and printers, a computer-controlled mill.

The North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district received a $350,000 grant from 3M to fund the equipment for Fab Labs at North and Tartan high schools. The district also works with Century College to provide concurrent enrollment opportunities for students taking classes related to the Fab Lab.

Apple Valley High School’s Fab Lab includes 10 3D printersAt Apple Valley High School, the Fab Lab is part of the districtwide E3 STEM program, which offers courses in a variety of STEM career fields and pathways starting in elementary school.

The program was created after the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district received a U.S. Department of Labor grant. The program has also created numerous connections and working relationships with business and community partners, all of whom see the benefit of STEM programming and the Fab Lab.

“The businesses we have partnered with say they can’t hire enough people with these skills,” said Christopher Lee, the Fab Lab coordinator at Apple Valley High School.

Apple Valley High School Fab Lab Coordinator Christopher Lee (right) works with a student to print an image on vinylThe district has also partnered with Dakota County Technical College and Inver Hills Community College to bring in curriculum, and provide opportunities for students to get college credit.

Apple Valley’s lab includes 3-D printers, vinyl printers and cutters, embroidery machines, a heat press, a UV printer, a shop bot that can make 2-D or 3-D cuts on wood, desktop mills and an electronics bench.

“The kids don’t even realize how complex it is, because it’s interesting and fun,” said Lee.

Not only do students have to learn how to run the printers, cutters and other machinery, they have to learn the computer software that makes them run. 

“In our classes, it’s really 80-85 percent designing and 15 percent actually making it on the machine,” said Lee. 

At both Apple Valley and North high schools, the Fab Lab classes are electives. 

In Apple Valley, the lab is used by other classes as well. Moran said he hopes to expand the reach to other subject areas at North.

Lee says he is using the machinery in the Fab Lab to produce items for the school’s store, as well as to support the school’s activities.

“We made earrings to sell at basketball games,” he said. “We’re making a vinyl wrap for the ski team’s van.”

This piece is important for Lee, because the Department of Labor grant is set to expire soon, and he wants to sell items to help fund the cost of materials for the lab.

Apple Valley High School has a 48 percent free or reduced lunch student population, so they do not have lab fees for the materials. Students can make a donation, if they are able.

For Moran, the best part of the lab is seeing how students have to problem-solve.

“They make their own problems,” he said. “There are 500 different right answers for a problem. We build things trying to get them to fail. That’s how they learn in here.”

Lee also enjoys seeing students troubleshoot issues with the software or equipment.

“With the laser cutter, you have to learn about six pieces of software to run it,” he said. “And if something isn’t right, it won’t work.”

Both Moran and Lee say that the skills learned in the Fab Labs prepare students for whatever future they can imagine—whether that is straight to the workforce or a two-year or four-year college.

“A lot of these machines are what you would use in a professional business,” said Lee.

“We want to expose them to jobs that might use these skills,” said Moran.

Both schools have or are developing internships with businesses that fits into the STEM and Fab Lab programming.

Many Fab Labs are open to the public and are included in Community Education programs.

Lee, along with Apple Valley’s E3 STEM program coordinator Jim Lynch, encourages educators who might be interested in starting a program at their school to reach out and connect with existing programs.

Even though their lab is up and running, the team from Apple Valley has been visiting Alexandria’s space recently.

“Get out there and tour schools,” Lynch said. “Ask for help. Build partnerships and ask for stuff.”