New online portal in the works for districts with fab labs

UW-Stout is working on an online portal that will enable the sharing of resources between Wisconsin school districts with digital fabrication laboratories, or “fab labs.”

The site is being developed with the aim of improving collaboration, allowing teachers and students alike to connect on curriculum ideas, equipment troubleshooting, and strategies for engaging community and business.

“We recognize that having all these fab labs getting started, there’s a benefit to pulling together resources and having access points for teachers,” said Randall Hulke, executive director of UW-Stout’s Discovery Center and head of the development effort for the site. “So many districts are getting funding; in many cases, there’s only one or two teachers in the district who are responsible for getting it running.”

WEDC is pitching in $63,000 to support the creation of the web portal and to help develop curricular support and professional development for teachers. The agency is set to give out even more money for fab labs to 21 public school districts throughout the state.

Today has been declared “Fab Lab Day” by Gov. Scott Walker, who will travel around the state along with other leaders to announce nearly $500,000 in fab lab grants.

School districts can receive up to $25,000 each — or $50,000 for consortiums of of two or more schools — to create or expand fab lab capabilities. Funds must be used only to purchase equipment to be used by elementary, middle, junior or high school students, and awardees have to match WEDC dollar-for-dollar.

WEDC has now invested over $1 million in fab labs in the last two years, and Walker’s 2017-19 budget calls for another $1 million in funding over the next two years.

“Fab Labs will provide students with the opportunity to develop an idea and then turn it into a product – it brings reality to the classroom,” said UW System President Ray Cross. “Regardless of what discipline a student may pursue, they learn important knowledge and skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.”

Fab labs are outfitted with high-tech manufacturing tools like 3D printers and laser engravers, giving students unique access to industry-standard production means. The state has given out grants to 25 different fab labs, according to WEDC spokesman Mark Maley, and Hulke said he is aware of at least seven other labs in the state.

UW-Stout put on a retreat last summer where Wisconsin teachers could learn about how to best leverage digital fabrication technology in their STEM-related lessons. This summer, the university will be holding professional development courses so that teachers can continue that education.

The new web portal is expected to come online in early August.

–By Alex Moe