‘Everyone is a maker’: Dreams become reality in digital fabrication labs throughout Uplands

Before the boxes containing new equipment for the Edgewood Junior High School digital fabrication lab could even be unpacked, eager teachers and students sat on the concrete floor working on their first project.

As they worked, they opened each of the tools they would need to complete the kite and wind tunnel math project. It was the first of many exciting days ahead for this new lab in Ellettsville, Indiana.

The “Design Lab” is one of nine digital fabrication labs launched at schools in the 11-county Indiana Uplands region since 2019. In the Uplands Fab Lab Network, teachers and students alike are learning that the limits are endless for those eager to learn new technology and use the fabrication equipment available right at their fingertips.

Each lab is equipped with a variety of tools, including 3D printing machines, laser cutters, CNC routers, physical computing devices, and vinyl cutters. The goal is for students to walk away as adaptive problem solvers passionate about experiential learning, prototyping, creativity, and problem-solving.

Indiana Uplands Fab Lab Network
What is a digital fabrication lab?
Digital fabrication labs are unique learning environments where students have access to a variety of tools and technology to explore the engineering design process, coding, and programming integrated with academic content. This learning environment provides students with modern workforce skills to succeed in their future careers.
What equipment will you find in each lab? Physical computing devices, 3D printing machines, laser cutters, CNC routers, and vinyl cutters.
What schools are in the network? Batchelor Middle School (Bloomington), Bloomfield High School, Edgewood High School (Ellettsville), Edgewood Junior High School (Ellettsville), Jackson Creek Middle School (Bloomington), Mitchell Junior High School, Orleans Junior Senior High School, Shoals Elementary School, and Tri-North Middle School (Bloomington).

Interest in digital fabrication developed as school districts participating in ROI’s Ready Schools Initiative were looking for solutions to the need for increased hands-on, authentic learning in schools. This type of learning helps school districts align learning to the education and workforce needs of regional employers and prepares students for high-opportunity jobs and careers.

The Digital Fabrication Lab at Edgewood High School is the most recent to be completed in the Indiana Uplands and is part of the high school’s newly renovated Innovative Learning Center, which also houses presentation and podcasting spaces. Once the doors to that lab opened, students were eager to get to work.

And it was not long before they started a project. An elementary school teacher was working to create a nature-themed cool-down space for her students. Hearing about this need, two high school students used the tools in the Lab to make a table out of a log for that space.

Edgewood High School students design and create a table for a new space at Edgewood Intermediate School. Presenting the finished table to Mrs. Keller is the last step in the student-led project.

“Solving authentic problems in your community … I think was the goal all along, to create a more connected school community, and now that is happening,” ROI Education Specialist Emily Menkedick said.

At Orleans Junior-Senior High School, students enrolled in a medical terminology class overcame the challenge of using electronics to create an Operation game inspired by “Shrek.”

“A senior in that class at the time said, ‘I almost quit. I almost quit five times because we couldn’t get the electronics to work. But we did. We kept watching YouTube videos and figuring it out,’” Menkedick said. “It’s that perseverance, grit, iteration, and communication that are the byproducts of learning in a lab.”

The labs are used to make learning more relevant while also giving students more hands-on experiences and teaching them career skills such as time management, teamwork, and creative thinking.

The idea for Digital Fabrication Labs in the Indiana Uplands region was inspired by the Public Education Foundation (PEF) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Following a $1 million investment from Volkswagen and the State of Tennessee, PEF oversaw the launch of a digital fabrication network in the Hamilton County Schools. Members of the ROI Education and Workforce Team connected with PEF and took Ready Schools design teams to visit their Volkswagen eLabs. PEF has served as a valued thought partner and mentor throughout the Uplands Digital Fabrication Pilot years.

Teaching in a lab is different from traditional classroom instruction. With that in mind, ROI contracted with consulting company devX for a year of implementation support. As part of this support, an innovation team from each pilot school received training on designing standards-based projects that leverage the tools and tool-specific technical training. Administrators also participated in a workshop on how to best support and sustain the labs in the future.

‘Everyone is a content creator’

How each Digital Fabrication Lab is managed varies. Some labs have a teacher in the lab at all times, and they co-teach with other teachers who bring classes in to work on projects. These lab teachers work collaboratively with teachers in their buildings to identify projects they can tackle in the lab. Other labs have specific fabrication lab classes tied to engineering, digital design, or entrepreneurship.

Design Lab lead Meighan Scott explains to ROI STEM Fellowship educators how students work through John Spencer’s LAUNCH cycle design thinking framework in the digital fabrication lab.

At the Edgewood Junior High Design Lab, lab lead Meighan Scott works in the lab full-time alongside teachers on projects for each grade level.

In Fall 2022, Scott welcomed educators in the ROI STEM Fellowship to check out her lab and hear from teachers and students about their experiences so far.

Two students shared how they were working to create a dog collar in the lab that would last a pet’s lifetime. With the project’s cost in mind, the students are making the collars out of donated leather belts. Using repurposed materials is the best way to keep project costs down, their teacher explained.

In the entrepreneurial class, students come up with ideas – like designing an alarm clock that does a better job of waking them up in the mornings – and they use the lab to make those ideas a reality.

Students work through John Spencer’s LAUNCH cycle, a design thinking framework, in the lab: Look, Listen, and Learn, Ask Tons of Questions, Understand the Problem, Navigate Ideas, Create a Prototype, Highlight and Fix, and Launch to an Audience. Using that framework, students think through every aspect of their project as they create a prototype that can be tested before the final product is done.

Entrepreneurship students and their teacher visit the Edgeshop to explain how they have used the digital fabrication lab to work on different projects, including creating a dog collar that would last a pet’s lifetime.

The entrepreneurship teacher explained that giving students complete ownership of their projects is scary for a teacher, but that is what makes it authentic learning. Growing up in a technological world, students are intrigued by the possibility of creating anything using technology and equipment in the labs.

“One student told me, ‘I can make anything I see on TikTok in the lab,’” Menkedick said. “Everyone is a content creator. Everyone is a maker in the lab.”

Think it, do it

ROI created – and continuously supports – the Uplands Fab Lab Network, which regularly convenes to provide time for collaboration and to collect feedback on what teachers would like to see in their labs and how they can be supported.

The whir of 3D printing machines hard at work can often be heard in the Novus Lab at Mitchell Junior High School.

In November, the Uplands Fab Lab Network met to check out the Novus Lab at Mitchell Junior High and the Dawgs Den at Orleans Junior-Senior High School.

Teachers were invited to observe the labs in action, share projects and ideas with other labs, and get support learning CNC routing. Teachers also had the opportunity to observe how these small-town fab labs are inspiring big dreams. Mitchell has less than 5,000 people living there, while Orleans has a little more than 2,000 residents.

This school year is Alison Kern’s first year in the Novus Lab. She taught sixth-grade science for 10 years before taking over the lab and working there full-time alongside teachers. As the new lab lead and project-based learning coach, Kern started a system for students to become experts in the lab by passing safety quizzes and showing Kern what they know about specific tools in the lab, such as the Glowforge 3D laser cutter.

Students receive a badge, and their pictures are displayed in a common area signifying that they are certified to help others with those specific tools.

Novus Lab Lead Alison Kern welcomes the Uplands Fab Lab Network to the digital fabrication lab at Mitchell Junior High. As the new lab lead and project-based learning coach, Kern started a system for students to become experts in the lab.

“I like that it lets kids have a choice in their learning and pursue areas in the lab they are passionate about,” Kern said of her experts. “I am not going to force them to become an expert in anything. I want them to love it.”

Kern invited five of her student experts to share more about their time in the lab. Students showcased their expertise in the Glowforge, handheld power tools, nonpower tools, and soldering.

Working in the lab gives the expert students more hands-on experience they believe will be valuable once they enter the real world, they explained, while also giving them another way to learn that is not sitting at a desk.

Selecting project materials and ensuring everything is cut and measured correctly are some of the challenges students have conquered in the lab so far – which only helps the learning process, Menkedick explained.

A panel of Novus Lab student experts discuss what they learn in the digital fabrication lab and how they overcome challenges while completing projects in the hands-on learning environment.

Each Mitchell Junior High student has visited the Novus Lab at least once this school year. This allows Kern to show students and teachers what is possible in the lab.

“If a kid can think it, we can do it,” Kern said.

About 20 minutes south of the Novus Lab is the Dawgs Den at Orleans Junior-Senior High School. This school year is also lab lead Jeri Brown’s first year in the Dawgs Den – and she is already making an impact.

Her lab intern, senior Emily Dewitt, has earned 10 badges in an expert system similar to Kern’s in the Novus Lab.

Dewitt was one of the students in the Dawgs Den demonstrating their skills for the Fab Lab Network teachers. She was teaching freshman Troy Dille how to use copper tape to connect LED lights to illuminate a display of the circulatory system.

Senior Emily Dewitt teaches freshman Troy Dille how to use copper tape to connect LED lights to illuminate a display of heart vessels in the Dawgs at Den Orleans Junior-Senior High School.

When connected to power, using a paperclip on a separate piece of copper tape that is connected to a battery, it will cause the LEDs to light up,” Dewitt explained.

Dewitt plans to be a nurse practitioner in a NICU. She is in the Dawgs Den twice a day, learning what she can from Brown and supporting other students. The Dawgs Den first opened its doors her sophomore year, but this is the first year she has been in the lab every day.

“I am lucky enough that Mrs. Brown has taught me how to use almost everything here, so that will help me with a lot of life skills,” she said.

“If I want to renovate my own house, I can use my own power tools. I can just do it myself. I think it’s cool she has been able to teach me all of this.”

Not far from Dewitt and Dille, junior Julia Isom stood at one of the lab tables working on a crop rotation demonstration project for Future Farmers of America.

She cut different crop boxes using the Glowforge in the lab and then used wood glue to put them together. She then pointed out small corn, soybeans, and wheat pieces she made using a 3D pen, which is similar to a hot glue gun.

“These are my interactive elements of the project I will be giving to the judges so they can do the crop rotation (using the boxes),” Isom explained.

Isom is also certified to use different tools in the lab, which means she can use them on her own – giving her more freedom to do projects during her free time.

Whenever Isom has free time in her school schedule, you can find her in the Dawgs Den.

Junior Julia Isom stands at one of the lab tables in the Dawgs Den, working on a crop rotation demonstration project for Future Farmers of America.

“I have always been super scared of new technology because it can be frightening for kids who did not grow up around it, so this opened my eyes being like, ‘Wow, it doesn’t have to be scary when you have a really nice professional who has trained you to do all of this.’”

“Be creators – not just consumers” is written on the chalkboard behind Brown as she explains how the Dawgs Den operates to her fellow lab leads.

She said she tries to involve the entire school community with different schoolwide activities – hoping to bring all seventh through 12th-grade students into the lab. Brown creates monthly design challenges, and the student with the winning design gets to come into the lab to make it a reality.

“I think I have been very student-focused, focusing on badges and credentials, getting the students in here so I can teach them,” she said.

“I am proud of this lab. I am proud of the kids who were in here. I am proud we can share all of this together.”

The Indiana Uplands is a region of makers. Utilizing a school’s Digital Fabrication Lab to showcase learning will help students develop the skills – and confidence – needed to join the three key industry sectors in the Uplands: advanced manufacturing, life sciences, and national security and defense. Labs provide students with the skills needed to meet the talent demand for companies in the region.

“A mindset towards iterating, creating, and collaborating are all of the things that our employers are saying they need and that we (ROI) know will be the difference between good and great,” Menkedick said.