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Fab Lab Debuts in Three Lakes

Natalie Jablonski

Three Lakes School is now home to a Fab Lab.  It’s an educational workshop developed by MIT…that brings high-tech manufacturing and design techniques into the classroom. It’s an initiative that many hope will spur the future of manufacturing in the Northwoods. 

Standing next to a whirring laser cutter, science teacher Al Votis gives a tour of the machines and equipment that make up the Three Lakes School District’s brand new Fab Lab. 

“Our next station that we have is our 3d printer station. In fact we don’t have just one…we have five. What these machines are doing, they’re an additive technology. They’re taking a simple material, plastic filament, and it’s melting it and putting it down in layers to print in one unit, an object that you print.”

Votis is one of the instructors of the inaugural How to Make Almost Everything class at Three Lakes High School.  The name should give you a pretty good idea of what it’s about – making stuff, especially stuff you didn’t think you could.  But the tools and machines are very different from the ones you might remember in your high school wood shop class.  In the Fab Lab, projects start with a virtual design on a computer.  Then students make their designs a reality using tools like a 3D printers, laser cutters, or computer-controlled metal cutters.  As Senior Ben Metzger is demonstrating, these machines can be very user-friendly and even intuitive for young people.  Right now he’s using a vinyl cutter to make a sticker logo for a group he’s in. 

“So it’s a red arrowhead, on top of a black circle. And in blue it says our lodge name and number. So you have to print it in three layers? Yep, you print it color by color – so the red arrowhead, you can see it traced in there.”

School only started about two weeks ago, and it’s Metzger’s first time using a vinyl cutter, but he didn’t find it difficult at all. 

Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News
“No it wasn’t too bad. I’m pretty familiar with some of the software, and using the computer. We have some tutorial videos that we get offline that walks you through step by step – really really simple to learn.”

The Fab Lab is a big deal for Three Lakes.  It’s only the sixth one in the entire state, and the very first to be located at a K-12 school in Wisconsin.  The array of machines and software that make up the Fab Lab came in at a price tag of almost $300,000, and organizers landed a large grant from the state Department of Workforce Development that paid for most of it.  But having fancy technology at their disposal doesn’t mean kids will be taking material resources for granted.

“We have a budget for all materials for the year that they have to stay within. As well as we partner with a business class. So we’re looking at business plans, they’re looking at those concepts of relating business to what they’re doing in their design aspects.”

As teacher Al Votis explains, students will have a materials budget of about $30.  Not only that, but they’ll eventually have to analyze whether what they’re making is actually affordable.  In other words, once you know you can build something, you have to find out whether it makes financial sense to build it.  It’s the opportunity to get this kind of hands-on experience with real-world skills that makes teachers, parents, and even employers…so excited about the Fab Lab. 

“When I was with Lockheed Martin, process knowledge was part of everything we did.

Steve Yahr is the new Director of the Three Lakes Fab Lab, and he comes from an industry background.  Yahr says it’s not just getting to know the new technology – it’s learning how to solve problems…that will give kids a leg up when they enter the workforce.    

“They understand the process, and they understand pushing the envelope, trying new things – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but they understand getting there, so I look at this and say it’s great from an industry perspective.”

The Fab Lab has only been up and running for a few days.  So right now we may be seeing a lot of key chains and metal smiley faces…but lawmakers, educators and employers are seeing a lot more: potential.  

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