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Lac du Flambeau tribe partners with electronics manufacturer to teach kids how to build computers

Students construct 3D printers during a class in Lac du Flambeau.
Erin Gottsacker
Students construct 3D printers during a class in Lac du Flambeau.

The sun has already set for the evening, but a group of about a dozen high school juniors and seniors, clad exclusively in black, are still in a classroom.

Each student stands behind a desk unpacking a cardboard box.

They pull out bags of tiny screws, cords of clear plastic, an electronic arm, an instruction manual full of black and white pictures – everything needed to build a 3D printer.

“Now the two big parts, the gantry and the base of the 3D printer, are connected by a cable,” coaches Tom Bachinski, the CEO of Simpson Electric, an electronics manufacturer in Lac du Flambeau.

Bachinski has a heart for engineering.

“I have a passion for building,” he says. “What better way to do it than with kids that are interested and can actually use what they built for real life application.”

But his mind is on the future.

Tom Bachinski, CEO of Simpson Electric, teaches high schoolers how to set up and use a 3D printer.
Erin Gottsacker
Tom Bachinski, CEO of Simpson Electric, teaches high schoolers how to set up and use a 3D printer.

“One of the things that we have to do strategically is prepare for our next generation of employees and they have to be familiar with electronics,” he explains.

Simpson Electric, like employers across Wisconsin, faces a labor shortage that’s expected to get worse in the next decade. Estimates suggest the state’s population will decline by more than 130,000 people by 2030.

The company wants to attract young, qualified workers, so Bachinski is working with local kids to build enthusiasm for tech.

“What we wanted to do was to build confidence, build some technical knowledge, introduce (students) to electronics,” he says. “Today’s technical economy is electronics, and we’re an electronics manufacturer. Unfortunately, there’s no electronics technical school right here, so my goal is to just keep building interest.”

Bachinski pitched the idea of a youth computer building class to the Lac du Flambeau tribe. It was championed by the tribe’s business development corporation and its economic support department.

Once it secured funding, those organizations recruited cohorts of students. Each cohort consists of about 10 kids. The youngest group was made up of 6th graders; the current cohort is composed of older high schoolers.

Each group meets once a week for three weeks. During that time, they build a desktop computer and 3D printer, and they learn how to use both.

“The very first class, they put together the computer tower,” remembers Gloria Cobb, the tribe’s director of economic support. “Everybody was so excited when they hit that power button and everything started coming on.”

She says this class is a huge win for students. At minimum, it increases access to technology. The class comes at no financial cost to students or their families.

“If you took the time to be here, we’re going to invest back in you,” Cobb says.

Every student gets to take home the equipment they build. That’s important because not all of the kids have computers at home, and none have 3-D printers.

Erin Gottsacker

But beyond increased access, Cobb says this class introduces students to a world of possibilities.

“What a way to teach our kids to be young entrepreneurs,” Cobb says. “If they’re not geared to go on to college or go to a tech school, they can be their own boss. The world is endless.”

Back in class, Joey Havican, one of the participants, is almost finished with his 3D printer. He’s a senior in high school, set to graduate in the spring with plans of possibly joining the marines.

He’s used a 3D printer before, but not much.

“Before I did coding,” he says. “That was really fun, so I thought building a computer would be fun too.”

Havican doesn’t know what he’ll build with his printer, but his classmates toss around ideas like fishing lures, chess pieces and Mother’s Day presents.

After just over an hour, he’s the first person to finish assembling his printer.

He carries it to another desk and plugs it in.

He’s reached the beginning of a new realm of possibility.

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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